'Compassionate' Christian Leaders Fight for the Religious Right

The Rev. Joel Hunter thinks everyone should replace old light bulbs with energy-saving fluorescents, and he's passionate about job training for the poor.
( [email protected] ) Dec 16, 2006 01:07 PM EST

LONGWOOD, Fla. (AP) - The Rev. Joel Hunter thinks everyone should replace old light bulbs with energy-saving fluorescents, and he's passionate about job training for the poor.

Those aren't revolutionary ideas until you consider the self-identified conservative is pastor of a suburban Orlando megachurch, and was until recently president-elect of the Christian Coalition.

Hunter, head of Northland, A Church Distributed, is among a handful of increasingly high-profile evangelical leaders preaching new politics. They are less fire and brimstone than compassion and concern, less interested in conservatism than what they call Jesus Christ's broader message, and utterly tired of partisan name-calling.

They could also be a new force in American politics.

"I think there are millions of Christians who don't have a political home right now. We don't have a political party, we don't have a label," Hunter said. "But we are asking ourselves, what can we contribute? What can we do in a positive way to love our neighbor? Let everybody else have the labels, but what's the next step of our maturity?"

Hunter made headlines last month after splitting with the Christian Coalition before he ever took the reins. He said his ideas didn't cohere with the once-powerful conservative group's, though the organization says things just didn't work out.

Either way, he's generating dialogue about broadening the Christian agenda beyond moral issues like homosexuality and abortion to causes of social justice. Opposing gays and abortion might have raised millions from donors and brought evangelicals to the polls, but they ignore broader messages of the faith like protecting the vulnerable, Hunter says.

"These other, what I think are more compassionate issues of Christ, are really not seen as part of traditional Christian advocacy," Hunter said. "There's so much in the Bible about the poor and the depressed and the disheartened. As Christian citizens, those are really the issues we need to be concerned about."

The old staples of abortion and sexuality also aren't necessarily attractive to the youths that conservative groups need to lure and retain to keep the standing that helped them return the U.S. House to Republicans in 1994.

"There's a kind of maturing of the movement," said Bill Martin, senior fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. "I think they've also recognized that they're kind of hitting the wall. They may have drawn in most of the people who can just feed off of anger."

The November elections, in which Republicans lost both houses of Congress amid corruption charges and the former Rep. Mark Foley's sex scandal, could be the point of entry for Hunter and those like him.

Steve Hill, megachurch pastor of Heartland Fellowship Church in Dallas, said Christians have "slammed the door on the Gospel" by focusing so narrowly on what they oppose, and on strident moral grounds.

"This is a concern for me, because right now in America God is very popular - the name God, and doing things under a spiritual banner," Hill said. "But I don't see Christianity fitting into that. They haven't shown the Gospel in its totality."

That message will not appeal to all conservative evangelicals. Four state branches have split from the Christian Coalition in the past few months - three of them saying the group abandoned its core mission by weighing in on issues like Internet law and tax reform instead of focusing on traditional morality.

California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life" and one of the country's more influential religious figures, was criticized by the National Clergy Council for inviting Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to an AIDS summit because the Democrat supports abortion rights.

Hunter says that mentality - the idea that collaborating on an issue with secular or Democratic groups sacrifices one's conservative credentials - impedes real progress.

"We have become so label-conscious and so polarized in our views that if you are outspoken about these issues, you're afraid of getting put in the wrong camp or being misunderstood," Hunter said. "I think it's an image thing, which is also a huge problem.

"Being called a liberal, to a conservative - or at least to a traditional conservative, a narrow conservative - that's the kiss of death," he said.

Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who studies religion in politics, said more moderate Christian groups might have difficulty raising money, because the movement's financial base has typically been conservative. However, he said money isn't always necessary to advance a cause. Civil rights activists in the 1960s didn't really have any.

Wilcox said he sees changes afoot, but it's not necessarily a fundamental shift as perhaps a cyclical ebb and flow.

"Right now it's really hard for a Christian group," Wilcox said. "If there are still problems with national policy, and if their whole prescription has been 'Elect more Republicans,' then there's a problem with that message."

© 2006 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.