LONGWOOD, Fla.  (RNS)  There’s a price to pay for becoming the voice of moderate conservatism and coalition politics. Even more so for refusing to march in lockstep with the Republican Party.

Ask the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland Church, Florida’s largest evangelical congregation. Hunter, 65, says his suburban megachurch may have lost as many as 1,500 members, or 10 percent of its membership, as a result of his ecumenical and political activism.

Trial pastors: (Left to right) Rev Robert K. Gregory, Jr., Rev. Lowman J. Oliver, III; Rev. Joel Hunter. The three pastors have been observing the murder trial of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Photo by Mark I. Pinsky

Trial pastors: (Left to right) Rev Robert K. Gregory, Jr., Rev. Lowman J. Oliver, III; Rev. Joel Hunter. The three pastors have been observing the murder trial of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Photo by Mark I. Pinsky

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But the compact, upbeat, Midwesterner is sanguine — likening membership departures to separating the wheat from the chaff.

“There is no such thing as safe leadership,” he said.

Hunter, who may be best known as President Obama’s spiritual counselor, still has plenty of church members — around 13,500. And he is not the first evangelical to pay a price for taking a less traveled path.

Fellow evangelical Richard Cizik took a harder hit in 2008 when he spoke out on social issues such as gay civil unions and global climate change and lost his job as chief Washington lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals.

Cizik said Hunter’s amiable demeanor will help him, but there’s no escaping criticism when an evangelical pastor talks about political cooperation.

“Give Joel Hunter credit,” said Cizik, who now heads the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. “He has guts, depth of conviction, and hasn’t lost his integrity, nor his prophetic voice.”

A good example of that leadership was Hunter’s recent two-day visit to Washington, D.C.

First, Hunter talked immigration reform with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., alongside a group of Florida Jewish religious leaders. The next day, Hunter attended an annual Jewish-evangelical leaders’ dialogue, whose agenda includes issues such as human trafficking, prison reform and religious persecution around the world.

“When I advocate for these issues, I see that as part of the natural influence of the church,” he said. “Most of our members believe that it’s a good thing that I’m involved in policy and political matters.”

Yet pointedly, Hunter did not stay in Washington for the kickoff of the annual Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference, a magnet for conservative national evangelical leaders, though he is a strong opponent of abortion and gay marriage.

Hunter’s high-profile activism is not new. He delivered a benediction at the Democratic National Convention. Last year, Northland hosted a talk about exercise and nutrition by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Yet in the 2008 Florida Republican Presidential primary, Hunter supported — and contributed to — the campaign of former Arkansas governor and former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee.

President Barack Obama shares a laugh with Pastor Joel Hunter, center, and Joshua DuBois, Director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in the Oval Office, Feb. 1, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama shares a laugh with Pastor Joel Hunter, center, and Joshua DuBois, Director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in the Oval Office, Feb. 1, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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After 40 years as a Republican, Hunter changed his registration to Independent three years ago, explaining in one statement that he did so in part because of the GOP’s “growing uncivil/personal attack tone.”

“We expect the party out of power to be more negative, but the strident hyper-partisanship was something I could not support — in either party.”

In a veiled reference to the Tea Party, Hunter released another statement saying, “the outside voices hijacking legitimate political debate is not something of which I will be a part.”

In addition to his relationship with the Obamas, Hunter has been a national leader in drawing evangelicals into “Creation Care,” a Christian form of environmentalism aimed at mitigating global climate change.

Over the past decade, he and a cohort of younger, evangelical leaders have called on others to lower their voices and shift the political center of gravity from the far right to the pragmatic center-right. They have also asked their congregations and organizations to make common cause with other faiths and denominations despite fundamental differences with mainline Protestant and non-Christian faiths over abortion and gay marriage.

To church member Richard Milam, Hunter’s comments about “turning down the political rhetoric” sounded like a “left wing talking point,” and for him it was the last straw. He left Northland not long after.

“I was aware of Joel’s relationship with the president and his eagerness to have a voice in the political forum,” Milam said.

He was willing to put that aside because of his respect and affection for Hunter. But Milam was also troubled by Hunter’s ecumenical outreach to an Islamic organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and could no longer separate his politics from his sermons.

Northland’s leadership is trying to cope with the loss of membership, which has necessitated some staff cutbacks.

“I am somewhat concerned that people are leaving the church over Joel’s involvement,” said Tom Starnes, a “shepherding elder” in the congregation and a Hunter ally. “But often they don’t have an understanding of the role Joel has played and the actions he has taken.”

Some congregation members objected to Michelle Obama’s visit, in part because it came in an election year, and because the first lady is a supporter of abortion rights.

Starnes says that a majority of Northland members agree with him that there is value in Hunter’s activism, and support his position on climate change and immigration reform.

And he gets support from others, such as Cizik, who believes change is impossible without a degree of risk taking.

“It’s obvious that without leaders who have guts, and will pay the price of leadership, the evangelical movement will remain as stuck in the past today, as evangelicals were stuck in the racist past of the days of Bull Connor and Jim Crow generally.”

Cizik, who in the 1980s wrote a book called “The High Cost of Indifference,” said the price he paid for losing his job was high, but he added, “the real price is being paid by the evangelical establishment that has lost its authority due to indifference and fear.”


  1. The reality is that there are alot of Christians who are more loyal to a particular political party than to Jesus. Many become very angry when their gods are challenged. Grateful for the likes of Hunter.

  2. I think it’s disturbing that someone considered a call for civility as a “left-wing talking point.” Just shows you how brain-washed evangelicals on the far right have gotten when they begin to consider even some biblical values with suspicion because it conflicts with their political views.

  3. Rev. Hunter is to be commended for his willingness to engage in the common good which is basic to the work of the kingdom of God, knowing that he will bear the animosity of people like Mark who commented above, who, in his contempt decided to lash out at his son. So unchristian. When I read stories like this one about Rev. Hunter it still gives me a little hope for the evangelical church.

    • Common good, huh??? Does that mean people like Barack Obama who wholeheartedly supports the SLAUGHTER/MURDER of innocent children in the womb in the name of abortion??? Is that what you meant by common good??? Give me a damn break, Hunter is a joke. Go to hear a real man of God, for God sakes….

  4. If Mark is unchristian as you say, what does that make Barack Obama, a supporter of murder/abortion, same sex marriage/SODOMY, birth control, and hardly ever goes to Church??? I sure as heck hope that you do not believe that he is a Chrsitan, DO YOU??? By the way, anyone that claims to be a spiritual leaders and advises Barack Obama who still supports murder and same sex marriage….Well, let’s just say that Joel Hunter is a total JOKE of a leader, don’t kid yourself….Any real man of God would be pretty bold and tell Barack Obama, you claim to be a Christian, you cannot have it both ways…Give that CRAP up…Joel Hunter is a JOKE, don’t kid yourself.

  5. Good for you….Don’t waste this time with this FAKE…Any man of God that claims to be an advisor to someone and that individual still supports MURDER AND SODOMY….Well, just goes to show you that Joel Hunter is an ABSOLUTE GUTLESS man of God….Any REAL man of God would tell Barack Obama the damn truth about MURDER and SODOMy and tell him to give it up NOW….Does Joel Hunter not realize that via James 3.1 in the Bible, he is going to be judged more severely????

  6. Hi there Mark – long time, no talk since our lunch at Panera a while ago! Trust you’re well…

    Since you’re not a born again Christian (unless you were converted since the last time I saw you), let me proclaim a key theme of God since Christians in America in my opinion are asking the wrong question here…

    In God’s Word, the apostle Paul begins a doctrine in Romans 12 of loving our enemy…the unfortunate chapter break at 13 confuses both patriotic zealots and cherry picking proof texters about the role of government. The context is that God appoints all key government leaders (“governing authorities”), even Obama, Sadaam Hussein, and Hitler…and they bear the sword of civil order and justice.

    Why? So that we born againers don’t have to bear that sword. Paul’s point is that since God has His men-women in place, we Christians are free to love our enemy and be about the Father’s business…not involved at all in the evil, demonic, occultic governments of the world system!

    So, the question is why in the world is brother Joel involved in the world’s system where he can’t effectively counsel a governing authority, or himself obey, the Word without compromise? I know Joel Hunter personally, and went to the church of 200 people in the late 80′s where I for a while once taught the only adult Sunday school class. I even met my wife there!

    And why are most Christians in America mostly (only?) concerned with below the belt sins of sexual nature? When the apostles were preaching and writing about a whole lot more…

    Why even Cal Thomas got in on the act of calling Christians away from active civil involvement since their efforts have consistently failed, but more vital don’t square with the Word. see: http://walkworthy.org/?p=2295

    So, we know what to do and where to spend our time by carefully watching what the early church did that “turned the world upside down.”

    If I ever see Joel Hunter again, I’d proclaim to him to be about the Lord’s real business…and soberly testifying to President Obama that he needs to repent of his sin, and if not (very, very soon) that brother Joel would need to obey Jesus and turn him over to Satan for the destruction of Obama’s flesh (1 Cor 5). This then is the love of God in Christ…

    Now that’s practical, modern day discipleship that prepares a soul to meet Jesus Christ on the “great and terrible day of the Lord.”

    And, Mark, let’s do lunch again soon…

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