Who Would Jesus Vote For?
Hunter clearly relishes kicking against his parishioners' limits, intellectually, spiritually and politically. On election Sunday, his sermon is chock-full of reminders that this is not your grandfather's evangelicalism. He makes a playful break from hidebound literalism: "There were twelve apostles," he says at one point, interrupting himself to add, "maybe a few more than that. Maybe a hundred." He distances himself from the feel-good Christianity of prosperity preachers: "A lot of times life doesn't get better" when a person accepts Christ, he says. "It's hard. Things become not clearer but more complicated." And he embraces mainstream culture, informing the folks that he's agreed to an interview on The Colbert Report. "Anybody can be on a religion channel," he says. "But when Christians are on the news channel, on the Comedy Channel, we're out there where God is.... What we're interested in is taking the Bible out of these rooms."
Like Purpose-Driven Life author and pastor Rick Warren and the Rev. Bill Hybels, who heads the 12,000-church Willow Creek network, the 59-year-old Hunter has vaulted to national prominence as a frontman for the new wave of evangelicalism--a fast-spreading movement intent on expanding the scope of Christian politics beyond the Falwell/Dobson generation's obsessions. "You've gotta go back to the re-engagement of Christian activism in the '70s," Hunter tells me later, to understand how the movement took the form it did. "All of these new things had started happening with the cultural shift and the free sex, and abortion, and taking prayer out of the schools.... There arose some real reaction, and it was really negative, very protectionistic." The political push for "moral values," he says, "wasn't bad. But I think there was a fixation on a very narrow agenda, a very self-centered agenda.... It was a very kind of paranoid language and still is to this day, partly because that's the easiest way to mobilize people and raise money." But it's not the end of the story, Hunter said. "You start tilting toward, 'Wait a minute. Are we just against stuff, or are we actually for something? Can we really build something good instead of just being against something bad?'"
What this "something good" might add up to, particularly when it comes to politics, is anybody's guess. At Northland on this election Sunday, the clues are decidedly mixed. When he finally gets to politics, Hunter asks the congregation to consider signing the petition for a statewide referendum on gay marriage. And then, having reverted momentarily to classic Christian-right politics (though not of the red-faced variety), Hunter offers one last reminder of how things are evolving. Go vote on Tuesday, he says. But don't expect your pastor to tell you how, or for whom. "I don't care who you vote for," Hunter says, shrugging theatrically. "Vote your values. Vote what you think Jesus' values would be." He laughs. "As close as you can get!"
In the grim days after the 2004 elections, when the religious right was basking in the credit for an unlikely Republican triumph, I asked the Rev. Mel White, a former ghostwriter and filmmaker for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham who now leads the LGBT rights group Soulforce, what progressives and Democrats could do to reach out to evangelical voters. It has to involve a message that emphasizes what the two sides have in common, White said: "We forget that Jesus was intent on liberating us from materialism--while fundamentalists are all about materialism. Jesus' message was: 'Sell everything you have; give your money to the poor; take up your cross and follow me.' The real Jesus calls us to justice and mercy." But while "the Republican Party has framed all the issues in moral terms, the Democrats have framed the issues mostly in economic terms," said liberal evangelist Tony Campolo. They haven't been asking voters to see "moral values" in social terms, rather than those of personal morality.
The social gospel has been taken up in this campaign by Barack Obama and John Edwards, who have spoken often about the deep influence their personal faith has on shaping their progressive politics. But, as White cautioned me then, there is only so much that the Democrats can do about changing evangelicals' minds and hearts. "Only people of faith can take on people of faith who've gone nuts," White said.
None of the rising generation of evangelical leaders have been more outspoken, and for longer, than Joel Hunter. In 1988, when Northland was still meeting in a skating rink, he became alarmed by Pat Robertson's campaign for President and penned a warning tract called Right Wing, Wrong Bird, observing rather bracingly that "Christians have this image of just being raving lunatics; and in some respects, it is well-deserved." Hunter exhorted evangelicals to think for themselves, to look past the culture-war issues that had come to define Christian politics.
At the time, Hunter's dissenting voice was drowned out by the media-amplified cacophony of the Falwells, Dobsons and Robertsons. But by 2006, when Hunter mounted his most audacious challenge to the religious-right hierarchy, new voices were being heard. There was the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose book tour for God's Politics turned into a Christian left mini-revival. There was Gregory Boyd, losing 1,000 congregants in his St. Paul megachurch after delivering a series of six "Cross and the Sword" sermons decrying Christian-right imperialism in the frankest terms: "Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn't bloody and barbaric," Boyd said. "I am sorry to tell you that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and hope of the world is Jesus Christ." There was former rock guitarist Rob Bell, "revolutionary" leader of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, preaching a Bible-centered social gospel for young evangelicals while poking the Christian right in its tenderest spot: "Religious people killed Jesus because he threatened their system. So what they say is faith is actually fear...it is fear that is rooted in ignorance and, actually, a lack of faith."