A recent Religion News Service (RNS) article by Mark Pinsky profiled Orlando mega-church pastor Joel Hunter, lamenting the pastor’s efforts to “[become] the voice of moderate conservatism and coalition politics have resulted in a ten percent drop in membership.” The article reports membership at Northland Church has dropped from 15,000 to 13,500 because of Hunter’s refusal “to march in lockstep with the Republican Party.” RNS reports the drop in membership has resulted in financial difficulties and staff cutbacks.
Hunter served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood partnerships from 2009 to 2010 and remains a “spiritual counselor” for the president. Although Hunter denies wading into political discussions during his talks with President Obama, he is vocally political most other times.
Despite Pinsky’s assertion that Hunter represents “moderate conservatism” and is a “strong opponent of abortion and gay marriage,” the mega-church pastor seems to minimize these views behind his enthusiasm for environmentalism, welfare programs, and interfaith cooperation.
In a 2008 Fox News interview about Senator Obama’s answer “that’s above my pay grade” to Reverend Rick Warren’s question, “When does life begin,” Hunter stated that though he personally believes life begins at conception, “Senator Obama was correct technically, the Bible doesn’t specifically tell us when life begins, it’s rather imprecise.”
Hunter is visibly politically active, and this activity pervades his ministry. In 2006 Northland Church reportedly made voter registration forms available in its lobby. Earlier this year Hunter released a documentary called Our Father’s World about the importance of “creation care” in the Christian life. In the film, Hunter says “God has given us problems so big, that not one faith community can solve on its own. Therefore, we need to work together, and we need to find common ground, both with believers of other religions and with those who believe in no religion … Biblical justice is social justice, and it calls for interfaith cooperation.”
Similarly, in a talk called “The Government is Not the Enemy” at the 2012 Q Conference, Hunter discussed the impossibility of the Church providing for the poor and hungry on its own without government assistance. He asserted that “government isn’t the enemy, and government isn’t the answer. But government is the potential partner that we look for, that we might need.”
In addition, Hunter received criticism this year for alleged Islamist sympathies while protesting “anti-Sharia” legislation in Florida. Hunter said he feared the legislation would cause “animosity” between Muslims and Christians.
Further, in February 2012 Northland Church hosted First Lady Michelle Obama to speak about her “Let’s Move” initiative.
Northland’s dwindling congregation is possibly not a direct reflection of its pastor’s shift from “lockstep Republican” politics to more “moderate conservative views”(which he does not appear to hold). If the decline is related to Hunter’s political involvement, it is more likely a result of the centrality of politics in the pastor’s public ministry and his pessimistic view of Christian charitable work and witness in the world.
Surely there are some partisan Christians who follow the Republican Party “lockstep,” but pro-life and pro-marriage convictions are not primarily political. One reason Christians are labelled with a blind commitment to the Right is because traditional Christian faith speaks more clearly to the sanctity of life and the design of marriage and sexuality than it does about environmental or welfare policy. And for now at least, the “Right” side of the political spectrum is somewhat sympathetic to pro-life and marriage convictions.
Although some would like to paint Northland Church as a story of what happens when an evangelical pastor abandons the “religious right,” it seems more a cautionary tale of making the political sphere the focus of a church and conflating the things of God and Caesar.
The Church is built on faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As such, the truth of the Gospel should be the central message of all Christians, especially those in pastoral ministry. As the Christian faith has implications for our interaction with the world and its renewal, politics can play some role in the Christian life. But Hunter has made a political agenda central to his public witness. Perhaps that reality, more than merely bidding farewell to Republican Party loyalty is why people are leaving his church.