In July, Rev. Joel Hunter was named president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, the legendary political advocacy organization founded by Pat Robertson.
Last month, just before he was to formally take office, he abruptly stepped down after a meeting with the coalition's board of directors. According to Hunter, it became clear that the organization was not ready to expand its focus beyond hot-button social issues like gay marriage and abortion. (Board director and acting president Roberta Combs says they simply wanted to move cautiously and poll their members first.)
Both sides insist the split was amicable, but Hunter's departure casts a stark light on a growing split inside the conservative evangelical Christian movement. Long seen as monolithic and ascendant, the evangelical bloc is increasingly being pulled in two directions: one that would retain and consolidate gains based on culture-war concerns like abortion and homosexuality, and one that would open the agenda up to broader issues like global warming, AIDS, and poverty.
The former faction has the advantage of decades of entrenched power and an enormous fundraising machine. The latter boasts the allegiance of a new generation of evangelicals weary of the divisiveness and naked political ambition of its forebears. Hunter -- spokesperson for the Evangelical Climate Initiative and author of a new book, Right Wing, Wrong Bird -- is squarely in the latter camp. I caught up with him by phone at the Orlando, Fla., church where he preaches, in the midst of what sounds like a media frenzy with no end in sight.
There's been some suspicion, both inside and outside the evangelical movement, that the much-ballyhooed green evangelical turn has more to do with a few high-profile leaders than any substantive change of heart at the base. Your encounter with the Christian Coalition seems to lend this notion some credence, doesn't it?
There are two ways to look at it. One is, there's a very recent, alarming cache of information; the scientific evidence is pretty recent in our history. Like any new information or suddenly appearing issue, there's going to be a lot of skepticism at first. People don't want to change. And there's a lot of suspicion on the part of conservative Christianity about anything that the broad-based media touts. So there is going to be that kind of skepticism and pushback.
From that standpoint, I would say that on a grassroots level this is not very deep, yet, in the evangelical community.
Having said that, there are two factors that will take it fairly deep, fairly quickly. One is, like most good Christianity, this is simply a reprisal of a historic concern. Christianity was at the forefront of human rights, anti-slavery, civil rights, and so forth -- that's so deep in our history, a respect for human life and a respect for God's creation. So even though it hasn't been a front-burner issue recently, it goes way back into our roots and is easily recoverable.
The other thing that's happening right now is that a number of us who have different networks are forming conversations that will have ripple effects across the church. Even the attention right now -- the [Sen. James] Inhofe-type attention, the Michael Crichton this-is-all-conspiracy kind of stuff -- isn't going to last very long in the milieu of the growing body of evidence. Conservative Christians are fairly intelligent people, believe it or not, and so over a period of time they will read the articles, read the books. We will. I don't know why I'm saying they. We will come to an accurate conclusion on global warming, and especially on the broader issue of environmental care.
The elephant in the room is that social issues -- gay marriage, abortion, and so on -- are identified as Republican and environmental issues are identified as liberal or Democratic. So there are two things green evangelical leaders could hope for: Republicans adopt the climate-change issue, or the evangelical base shifts its voting behavior. Which of those do you think is more likely?
Evangelicals are not primarily concerned with growing a political strategy. I do think there is a growing constituency -- the maturing of evangelicalism -- to go beyond the reactionary issues that were morally centered into the compassion issues that are well-being centered. As we do that, both parties are now going to be interested in what evangelicals are interested in. So I think there will be a little of each -- there will be a broadening of the Republican agenda, and the Democrats will be more interested in not just writing off the evangelical vote. They will see that we are interested in a number of issues, and perhaps they will find some more conciliatory language in order to try to interest the evangelical vote.
I'm not sure exactly what's going to happen politically, but from a conservative Christian standpoint, you just want to do the right thing and vote the best way you can. Then let the chips fall where they may.