Joel Hunter isn't looking for a fight.

But the senior pastor at Northland Church in Longwood is in the middle of a conflict whose impact — intended or not — could shatter the base of the religious right in America.

That could spell disaster for the Republican Party, ferociously dominant in national and state politics in most elections over the past decade. The GOP — which wags say now stands for "God's Own Party" — has had as its most stalwart troopers the conservative Christians who, at the behest of politicized preachers, have marched in lockstep to the polls for Republican candidates. And Hunter, a conservative Christian himself, has helped dig a pothole in the religious right's politically straight and narrow path.

Hunter was one of 86 evangelical leaders who signed a declaration earlier this year professing a position on an issue long ignored by political preachers: "Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis."

By no means a leftist Christian, Hunter says, "I'm pro-life and against gay marriage. We're not leaving traditional causes."

But if you catch the evangelicals' global warming commercials on television, it's Hunter's face you'll see. "The most affected by global warming are the poor," he says in an interview. "We must do anything we can to minimize the impact on them. That is what Jesus taught us."

As innocuous and as Christian as such a statement sounds, it was a pointed rebuke of the leadership of the religious right and the Republican Party. Up until the declaration, political preachers had dismissed environmental concerns. In many cases, after all, their power relies heavily on claiming the Second Coming is coming soon: Why worry about Mother Earth when you, Tim LaHaye, Ralph Reed and a few others are about to be raptured up to Heaven? Such blitheness fits well with the corporate wing of the GOP, which places profits above prophesies of peak oil and environmental disaster from global warming.

Those who refused to sign the global warming statement included America's foremost ayatollahs: Jerry Falwell; the Rev. D. James Kennedy of the mammoth Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale; James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family; the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Richard Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University; Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association; and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

"There's no surprise at who didn't sign," said Jim Jewell of Atlanta, spokesman for the evangelical environmentalists. "What we did was signal that evangelical movement has a new cause, beyond just abortion and gay marriage, to human rights. Evangelicals had been depicted as one voice. This let people know we have more than one voice."

In today's religious terms, that's almost heretical. It gets worse. People are rising up and wagging fingers at the fundamentalists who have become indispensable to the GOP machine.

On Feb. 22, for example, at a Clark Atlanta University auditorium, Christianity girded its loins with faith, anointed itself with righteousness, and went forth to do battle with, well, Christianity.

It wasn't a LaHaye vision of the final conflict at Mount Megiddo. There was no thunderbolt-wielding Christ bloodily massacring gays, Jews, Muslims and billions of others who failed to meet Pat Robertson's criteria for salvation. But the scene wasn't pretty.

Sadie Fields, the brittle vicar of Georgia's Christian Coalition, told a town hall forum on immigration reform what her brand of Christianity taught about undocumented aliens. Invoking Old Testament scripture, Fields intoned: "We uphold the rule of law … God would never condone chaos and lawlessness for he is a God of order, justice and righteousness."

For the crowd, largely black and Hispanic, that was enough. From the back of the auditorium, Aquiles Martinez jumped to his feet, marched forward and addressed Fields in a voice that trembled with anger.

"Jesus was an exile himself," Martinez fumed. "He lived an uprooted life. He opposed unjust laws. He opposed the religious and political establishment of his day."

Then Martinez, a Methodist minister from Waleska, Ga., thundered: "How DARE you support legislation that victimizes the poor!"

He didn't add, "… and call yourself Christian," but his meaning was unmistakable.

The jeremiad was greeted with a few seconds of silence, then hearty applause. Fields glared at Martinez. But state Sen. Chip Rogers, the Republican who introduced Georgia's new anti-illegal immigration legislation, rode to her defense. How, he wondered, could anyone question someone else's religious beliefs?

"That," he said, "is between the person and his God."

More than a few in the crowd of about 300 snickered at the irony in that remark coming from a Republican. One young woman chided: "Isn't that how Republicans win elections? Don't they claim they own Jesus?"

* * *

Well, yes, many Republicans do just that. But more than a few Democrats are getting the message that faith counts.

There's a new social gospel being heard in churches and — more to the point — in political strategy sessions. The self-recruited warriors for Christ who formed the vanguard in GOP takeovers of the White House, Congress and statehouses across the South suddenly are no longer unopposed the battle over faith in American politics.

Chapter 1 of the new gospel is a rebuke of the moral meltdown among purportedly God-fearing politicians — people like Katherine Harris, Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay and even George W. Bush. They're enveloped in controversies involving deception, hypocrisy and other less-than-holy behaviors.

Chapter 2 of the new gospel records the discomfort among believers that the narrow interests of politically motivated preachers — primarily opposing abortion and gay rights — aren't all there is to religion. Why, the gospel asks, aren't more evangelical leaders sermonizing on the core of Jesus' teachings — peace, compassion and poverty?

Chapter 3 introduces new religious leaders and a growing number of rigorously religious folks who are bucking the Republican agenda. Many of them hold "conservative" religious social values. Others form smaller but recently energized contingents of moderate and liberal religious Americans. Their leaders often are evangelical preachers, such as the Rev. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners movement. But others, including Rabbi Michael Lerner of the liberal Tikkun movement, hail from other religious backgrounds.

It remains to be seen whether the forces arrayed against the religious right will amount to much. Will they cause a substantial number of evangelicals to consider issues other than the short litmus test positions that fundamentalists such as D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell have told them are important? Will they energize people of faith from other religious traditions to become more engaged in the political process? And, most of all, will they fracture the coalition that has given the Republican Party control of the White House, Congress and state governments across the South?

"The Republicans can hold together only if the Democrats help them," says Allan Carlson, who runs the Howard Center, a Christian issues research center in Illinois. "The interests of corporations and banks, the real power in the Republican Party, aren't the same as the interests of families. More and more Christians are becoming aware of that."

Carlson adds, "But the good news for Republicans is that the Democrats can't shake loose with their attachment to the 1960s' sexual revolution on issues such as same-sex marriage. The Democrats refuse to adopt pro-family measures, and for social conservatives, that means there's no place to go except the Republican Party."

* * *

Some 48 million Americans are white evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Research Center. And about 30 million of them form the bedrock of the religious right wing that's led by political preachers.

Among those 30 million, count the congregation at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon. There you'll find no signs of leftward backsliding. The church is bedrock fundamentalism, and Leon and Darlene Pondo are the vanguard slugging it out with liberals and secularists. On a recent Sunday, the couple sported motorcycle leathers for the church's Faith Riders bikers club.

"I started out as a hippie," says the ponytailed Leon, only to be elbow-jabbed and interrupted by his wife, who laughs, "You've never been a liberal." With a lopsided grin, he concedes, "True."

Among the church's recent victories was delaying for a year the opening of a nearby "bikini bar."

The duo, who teach a church class on getting involved in politics, rapidly fires out a liturgy of religion and politics. "The conservative agenda wins in the arena of ideas. … Liberal arguments are emotional. … Separation of church and state? Where does that come from? It's not in the Constitution. … Global warming? It's just a theory, but liberals accept it as gospel fact just like Darwinism. … The ACLU is the most evil organization on Earth."

Bruce Porter, an affable mail carrier attired in choir robes, joins the Pondos and adds this wisdom: "If a politician is pro-abortion and against the war, well he won't protect America, and he won't get elected."

But fault lines of doubt are spreading within the religious community.

In Marietta, Ga., for example, religion is decidedly skewed to the right. This is where evolution is vigorously challenged in the schools, where county government passes resolutions condemning gays. It goes without saying that Democrats are endangered.

"A year ago, I was a Republican. I can no longer stomach what's going on," says Angela Dotson, a member of the 8,000-member Mount Bethel Methodist Church.

Dotson's pastor is the Rev. Randy Mickler, who most recently made headlines when he led a movement in the denomination to oppose the ordination of gays. Still, Mickler is hard to categorize. He won't, for example, let the Christian Coalition proselytize at his church.

"Yes, when you go to the voting booth, you should vote your values," he says. "My discomfort with the religious right is their balance. They tilt far more towards politics than towards faith. They don't tolerate other opinions. As Christians, we should keep in mind that one of the things that got Jesus crucified was Pharisaism."

Church member Dotson says flash point issues — war, taxes, corruption — have propelled her away from the Republican Party. "What they `the GOP` are doing doesn't fit with my religion," she says.

Others, too, have decided that the stern fundamentalist preachers have wandered from Jesus' teachings. On a recent Saturday evening, in the parking lot of Dr. Joel C. Hunter's Northland Community Church in Longwood, Tim Wise is looking lost. The retiree from the Central Florida coast had driven an hour and passed scores of churches just to get to Hunter's congregation.

"My first time here," he says apologetically. "I'd read about Dr. Hunter. Finally a preacher who got it right about the environment."

Eight other Northland congregants voiced similar opinions. None disagreed with Hunter's pro-environment epiphany, although a half-dozen said the issue had nothing to do with their faith. "I came here because of a crisis in my life," says Laurie Huntington, a church greeter. "I'm not political. Dr. Hunter is amazing, and I'm proud of what he's doing" with global warming. "But he'd never tell us how to vote."

Northland "leans Republican," Hunter smiles. "Some devotees of Rush `Limbaugh` e-mailed me that they were alarmed we were going to sell out capitalism" with the global warming statement.

Church newcomer Wise described himself as "pretty conventional. I was in the Army during Vietnam, went to college, got a job, raised a family. My three kids are scattered, and my wife died last year. Somewhere along the way, I knew I needed Jesus."

A lifelong Baptist who annually does the snowbird jaunt between New York and Florida, Wise says he was "front and center" when it came to opposing abortion. "I don't believe the Bible approves of homosexuality, but on the other hand, I figure that's between them `gays` and God. I could never get too excited about opposing marriage `for gays`."

On politics, Wise says he'd voted for one Democrat for president — Jimmy Carter — but otherwise was a devout Republican. "Well, on some local races, I've fallen off the `GOP` wagon."

Wise says he'd never much liked the right-wing preachers' politicization of the pulpit, but that he disliked the Democrats' positions on moral and social issues even more. "Why do we have to strike God from everything to do with government? The fellows who started this country didn't do that."

But now, he's wondering. "I'll never vote for a candidate who supports abortion on demand. But I understand that there are times when it may be necessary. I'm sure not for those tax breaks `for the wealthy`, and I'm pretty sure we got it wrong in Iraq. I voted for George Bush two times. I wouldn't again, but I'd hope for a guy like `Al` Gore rather than `John` Kerry."

Most important to Wise: "The environment. I came here because I think this minister is sane. I'm not sure about all of those preachers who say global warming is a myth."

* * *

Global warming and other issues that relate to our stewardship of the planet seem finally to have struck accord among evangelical Christians.

The ministers, academics and lay activists who, along with Hunter, signed the global warming statement encompassed a wide range of beliefs, including 39 evangelical colleges, the Salvation Army, and a cross-section of denominations and churches.

The environment isn't the only wedge issue that is chipping at the GOP religious base. Although Republicans and the religious right have stridently opposed stem cell research — asserting that using the cells equates with murder — three of four Americans support lifting bans on the procedure that could find a cure to Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses. More significantly, 62 percent of fundamentalists and almost 80 percent of moderate and liberal Christians favor stem-cell research, according to a 2004 poll by the Civil Society Institute.

Similarly, Americans (by an overwhelming 82 percent in one poll) disapprove of the political/religious right's frenzied attempt to capitalize on Terry Schiavo's death last year in Pinellas Park, according to a CBS poll. Polls show even a majority of evangelicals opposed the Schiavo antics of George and Jeb Bush, Senate majority leader Bill Frist and then-leader of the House Republicans, Tom DeLay.

Abortion, the most consistently potent weapon of the fundamentalists, may even cause blowback. Two-thirds of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Mainstream leaders of megachurches, such as Northland's Hunter and Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of California's giant Saddleback Church, have declared their emphasis is on ending poverty — rather than on divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Books challenging the right's religious orthodoxy are hitting the best-seller lists — from Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values to Rabbi Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God to the hottest of them all, God's Politics by the Sojourners' Jim Wallis.

Groups with names such as CrossLeft and Soulforce are springing up, holding well-attended meetings and spreading via the Internet their gospel of aiding the poor, saving the Earth and tolerance.

"We must aggressively put forth our own moral agenda and challenge the religious right's misuse of the religious tradition," Rabbi Lerner says. "We must also challenge the hostility towards religion and spirituality in the liberal and progressive world."

Learning from the right's militancy in, say, demonstrating against abortion, the religious left is also turning out on the streets. A crowd of self-professed Christians gathered in front of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville last August — not to cheer its then-pastor, the Rev. Jerry Vines, famed for vitriolic broadsides against gays and Muslims, but to chastise him for his un-Christian-like rhetoric.

Even some early disciples of Bush's faith-based initiatives are turning apostate. The Rev. Jim Dickerson, pastor of a large interracial church in the nation's capital, at first lined up for Bush's faith-based cash, but later told the press: "This was just a smoke screen to recruit blacks and minorities into the Republican party by bribing them with money and access to power — even while covering up cuts in vital social programs and giving big tax cuts to the wealthy."

Worse, the foot soldiers are questioning the self-appointed generals. "Just how far are evangelicals willing to allow Bush to go?" muses the Rev. Chuck Baldwin, pastor of Pensacola's Crossroad Baptist Church and a frequent orator on the dangers of the religious right. "Would they be willing to support the imprisonment of fellow Christians who don't support Bush if the Department of Homeland Security ordered it? I believe many would. And if so, how is that different from the attitudes of Christians in Nazi Germany?"

The Rev. Gary Vance, a leader of the multidenominational, Internet-based CrossLeft movement, parted ways with the Southern Baptists as it moved away from its apolitical tradition and into the Republican orbit.

"It was the only faith I knew growing up in Texas," he says. Vance formed the charismatic Word of Life Ministries in Leoma, Tenn. He says, "The religious right doesn't really speak for most Christians. There are signs people are beginning to understand that."

* * *

All of that doesn't yet equate to a widespread insurrection among churchgoers. The religious right is still immensely large and its power remains intact.

Evidence of that is on U.S. 1 north of Fort Lauderdale. You can't miss the large and angular church, resembling a utilitarian Wal-Mart construction more than that of a grand cathedral.

The Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is one of several megachurches vying to be the Vatican of the religious right. Its pastor, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, has been called the "Godfather of Dominionism," but that slight emanated from the wholly heathen Rolling Stone magazine. Dominionists believe Christian (as they define it) crusaders should conquer America's secular institutions, and then the world.

The mighty pay heed.

AOL's Steve Case gave Kennedy's church academy $8.35 million. Other moneyed notables who've embraced the preacher include Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos and Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza.

Kennedy claims he and the church he founded — which has grown from 45 members to 10,000 in its 46 years — are "middle of the road." He told me he wasn't a theocrat — "that's ridiculous."

Yet he wrote in his 1999 book, Led by the Carpenter: "We are to exercise godly dominion … over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society."

A greeter at the church, Sheila Burnside, says she left Catholicism because it is "too liberal." She noted that Kennedy "has a ministry in Washington, just for the purpose of getting involved in politics. He says it like it is and isn't afraid to be political."

Illustrating that, at his March "Reclaim America" confab, the handouts included guidelines on how churches and pastors can circumvent laws that prohibit tax-exempt institutions from electioneering.

And Kennedy says he wants even greater church involvement in politics. Along with other televangelists such as Falwell and Robertson, Kennedy is pushing legislation by U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., that would allow partisan election campaigning by preachers and churches without endangering their tax-exempt status.

To get the significance of that, consider these facts: Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., has 22,000 members and generates more than $200 million a year. Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries is in the $50 million-a-year class. Add to those numbers the thousands of other megachurches, a high percentage of which trend to conservative politics, plus the money and influence machines of the Christian Coalition, Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women of America, Dobson's Focus on the Family and similar outfits, and the result is raw power.

In the shadow of those controversies, the religious right has amassed a string of recent victories, from prodding South Dakota to enact the nation's most restrictive abortion laws to claiming that its pressure successfully derailed the annual gay pride festival in Charlotte, N.C.

No Republican can take lightly the rightist reverends. Sen. John McCain, long a critic of Falwell and champion of the GOP moderate wing, has bent the knee. On May 13, he delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia.

And, of course, the Republican Party has said thanks with more than prayers. Through George Bush's faith-based initiative — and state programs such as Jeb Bush opening Florida prisons to proselytizing — church offering plates are overflowing with taxpayer cash. President Bush's tithes include nearly $1.9 billion in faith-based grants.

It's worth remembering that the religious right chorus has been practicing its hymn for decades. Falwell declared in 1965: "Preachers are not called upon to be politicians but to be soul-winners." Fifteen years later, he founded the Moral Majority and began reaping votes, not souls, for the Republican Party.

By the dawning of the 21st century, political preachers were playing a major role in partisan politics — and were about to claim a president as their own.

According to Rosa Brooks, a University of Virginia law professor who has analyzed the convergence of the politics and religion: "Conservative evangelical churches were able to deliver voters for Bush in much the same way, and for much the same reasons, that labor unions and political machines like New York's Tammany Hall were once able to deliver votes for the Democrats: They offer material benefits to people with nowhere else to turn, and that is easily parlayed into votes at election time. … Because megachurches today are disproportionately conservative, Democrats ignore the phenomenon at their peril."

Illustrating that peril, Kennedy's sermons frequently include invectives against Democrats and liberals who, he says in an interview, "are against the Bible and Christianity" and "oppose anyone with Christian views. Democrats in large measure have driven Christians out of the party."

Even the preacher's fiercest critics grudgingly agree. Democrats "are backed into a corner," says the Sojourners' Wallis. "They're perceived as secular, hostile to faith. Some of that is untrue, but there's enough evidence that we have to pay attention."


* * *

The midterm elections loom five months away. The Bush administration is in tatters. Two of the highest-profile Republicans in the South — Georgia lieutenant governor aspirant (and former Christian Coalition potentate) Ralph Reed and Florida U.S. Senate candidate Katherine Harris (whose campaign is blessed by the Rev. Kennedy) — are being battered by major ethical storms. In Alabama, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore — who gained the ardor of Christian conservatives for his efforts to place the Ten Commandments in state buildings — was pummeled in that state's gubernatorial primary by moderate GOP incumbent, Bob Riley.

Poll after poll foreshadows trouble for the GOP, at least in Congress. Bush's approval rating has nose-dived to around 30 percent. Sixty percent of Americans anguish that the country is in trouble. And, most worrisome for Republican field marshals, polls reveal that Americans favor Democrats for Congress by anywhere from 9 to 17 points.

A shift in 15 seats in the U.S. House would give the Democrats control. A six-seat change from R to D would end Republican control of the Senate.

One big unknown is whether the combination of Republican tribulations and the epiphany among Democrats that they've found religion, hallelujah, will shake loose enough evangelicals to reshape the political firmament. The core question is whether Democrats, who have been born again in realizing that faith is really important to Americans, will be able to pull some of the evangelical ranks away from unquestioning support of the GOP.

Will they vote in the same numbers as before, or as consistently for Republicans?

"I'd like to say ‘no,'" says the Sojourners' Wallis. "But the truth is no one knows and no poll can predict precisely what will happen in November. But have we seen the first voices of discontent `among evangelicals`? Yes, absolutely."

At the same time, Republicans know how to punch the religious buttons.

Remaining evangelical support for the Republican agenda appears to be deeply felt. Despite the shellacking the administration is taking, 59 percent of the GOP's evangelical contingent still gives the party high marks, compared to 47 percent of all Republicans, according to a recent Pew Research poll.

And the GOP strategy for employing religion in the next election is already clear. Consider the martyrdom of Tom DeLay, whose holiness turned Congress into a brothel for big business lobbyists. The Rev. Rick Scarborough, an influential Texas Baptist preacher and founder of the pro-war, pro-GOP "Patriot Pastors," declared in March that the deposed House majority leader "was a target for all those who despise the cause of Christ."

Embedded in his statement is the kernel of the Republican game plan: Assert that the party is God's holy tool, and depict Christianity as under attack. In other words, break with the Republican Party, and you'll become the tool of the Antichrist or, even worse, the ACLU.

"I believe we've seen the birth of the first religious party in the United States," says Kevin Phillips, a former strategist for Richard Nixon and author of the just-released American Theocracy. "It should scare every American who values his liberties."

Will the political preachers who've helped to redefine the Republican Party continue to keep the grass-roots army that has given them so much power marching in lockstep? November's election will tell. They seem assured of success in at least one way: Now, both the left and the right acknowledge, morals and faith will be pivotal in American politics for the foreseeable future.

"Progressives were wrong to think they could have politics devoid of faith and values," says Rabbi Lerner. "They are central to the issues facing America."

A version of this story appeared originally in Atlanta's Creative Loafing.

[email protected]
Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.