Are Evangelical Voters Abandoning the Republican Establishment?

Rev. Joel Hunter might not seem like an obvious progressive. He's the pastor of Northland Church, a 12,000-member evangelical congregation just north of Orlando, Fla. He's staunchly pro-life and was an outspoken supporter of Mike Huckabee's bid for the presidency. But Hunter has emerged as a leader among the growing bloc of evangelicals who are concerned not just about abortion and homosexuality, but also global warming, healthcare and poverty -- issues traditionally associated with progressives. And these "new conservatives," as Hunter calls them, aren't necessarily going to be faithful to the Republican Party they've called home for so many years.

There has been evidence of this divide among evangelicals in the primaries this year. While it's difficult to pin down exact figures, as exit pollsters don't ask Democrats if they identify as evangelical, surveys have found that Republicans no longer have a monopoly on these voters. A new survey released last month by the Barna Group, the country's leading evangelical polling group, found that 40 percent of all "born again" adults who plan to vote in November said they would choose a Democratic candidate, while just 29 percent said they would vote for a Republican. Faith in Politics also commissioned its own exit polls in Tennessee and Missouri on Super Tuesday, which found that one in three white evangelicals there participated in the Democratic primary. Huckabee's long run of success in the primaries evidenced this split, as he was the only Republican candidate talking extensively about issues like poverty and the environment.

Over the past few years, Hunter has blazed a trail for these "new conservatives." He serves as the spokesperson for the Evangelical Climate Initiative and is part of a coalition of more than 20 major religious groups calling for government action on climate change. In 2006 he served as the president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, the hard-right political advocacy organization founded by Pat Robertson, but stepped down from the post following disagreements with the coalition's board of directors over expanding their agenda to include issues like poverty and the environment -- which Hunter says should also be considered "pro-life" concerns.

He's released two books on this growing schism. His 2006 book Right Wing, Wrong Bird is a guidebook for evangelical Christians who feel like the Religious Right's narrow focus ignores these other concerns. His new book, A New Kind of Conservative, released in January, calls for a conservatism not solely concerned with morality, small government and lower taxes, but a larger range of issues traditionally associated with progressives. These new conservatives, Hunter believes, must force change in the Republican establishment -- or abandon it.

While in Florida, I caught up with Hunter at his church to talk about his support for Huckabee's campaign, expanding the evangelical agenda, and whether this new movement creates inroads for progressives with a group that has long been seen as out of reach.

Kate Sheppard: A lot of these the issues that you talk about and that Mike Huckabee was talking about in the primary, issues like climate change and poverty, haven't been discussed by any Republican candidates in recent years.

Joel Hunter: It is something that's new, but it's something that's very needed. Unless Republicans take up these issues that are important to everybody, they're really going to lose the elections. People really do care about everybody having their basic needs met. I'm not talking about a socialist society here. I'm just talking about basic policies that would help people who are really trying. I think that the general population of America is not interested in trying to run the rest of the world by force or trying to buy the rest of the world by a superior economy.

KS: Do you worry that this divides the conservative coalition that has been created over the past decades?

JH: I see it as a great benefit that it divides the coalition. I want for the coalition to broaden. [There is] a certain section of the coalition that says we're going to keep focused on the issues that got us to the dance, so we want small government, we want less taxes, we want strong military. But I think that there's a growing number of conservatives that say, "No, we want a government that is effective in helping people out. It's not the answer, but it's not the enemy either. Yes, we'd love to have lower taxes, but we'd love even more for the government and private industry and the faith communities to be able to cooperate to help people in need with support systems that really make a difference. Whether or not taxes are lowered is not the real question. The question is how well are we assisting people who really have needs.

KS: What are your hopes of electing a Republican that cares about issues like the environment, since that's been a big one for you?

JH: I'm not sure I'll vote for a Republican that doesn't care about the environment. For me, to stay consistently pro-life is to care for the vulnerable outside the womb as well as the inside. I know that our record on abortions in this country is horrible, but I know that lives will be lost due to climate change. As we face the floods and droughts brought about by climate change, we will face starvation because of the lack of ability to make produce out of the land. We will face wars because of the scarcity of resources. We will face disease because of the mosquito-borne illnesses. The literally millions of lives that will be lost because of climate change is also a pro-life issue.

KS: The environment is an issue that has separated you from other conservatives, but do you think that the conservative movement is coming around on this topic?

JH: I know it is. Part of it is that the accumulating evidence more and more marginalizes those voices that say, "Well, science is still divided." Science is not divided on this. The other reason that this is changing is because people of [the younger] generation are just coming out of the woodwork on this. And they don't care about evangelical, not evangelical, left, right, Republican, Democrat. They care about solving problems. And they know this is a problem to be solved. So there is this huge tsunami of the younger generation that says, "Quit debating this thing. Let's do something about it."

KS: Do you see any possibility of the people you're talking about voting for a Democrat if there isn't much of a change within the Republican Party?

JH: I do. [Abortion and gay marriage] will always be core issues for us, but I think that many evangelicals and many Republicans are now looking for a broader agenda, and they're looking at pro-life not just as whether we can get Roe v. Wade overturned. That's a rather limited approach to stopping abortion, because the decisions would come right back to the states, many of whom would still be pro-choice. It's just not a good strategy, and I think as people become more sophisticated politically, they understand that in order to be pro-life when it comes to abortion, you have to affect the heart. Many of the Democratic candidates say they want to lessen abortion. I think that this broader agenda will make Republicans have to work harder for a broader constituency base, and I think if they don't do that, many evangelicals will vote for a Democrat.

KS: It seems it's mostly the big religious and conservative organizations that are pushing the idea that marriage and abortion are your only two issues. Do you see those institutions changing?

JH: I see it changing not because they're changing, but because people are sick of hearing it. People are so tired of this caustic condemnation. The reason that it's been effective up until now is because the easiest way to raise money is through fear and hatred. And it's worked. But I think people are writing that off now. I think that generally there's a shift from those very accusatory voices to the visionary voices. I don't think there's any surprise that Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee have gotten the kind of political traction they have, because their voices have been positive. Nobody can tell what the future will bring, but it's a sign that people are ready for something else.

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