In July of this year, the Christian Coalition of America elected Florida megachurch pastor Joel C. Hunter to serve as the group’s new president. He was slated to take over the job from Roberta Combs who will continue to serve as chair of the Coalition’s board of directors. Hunter’s appointment was made public in October and he was to begin serving in January.
Before that could happen, however, sometime in late November, he was fired.
Why after months of interviews and phone conferences, was Hunter suddenly found unacceptable? According to a story in the Orlando Sentinel, in announcing Hunter as the new president Combs said she was drawn to his “leadership and knowledge of politics.” Now it appears it was his leadership and politics that got him in trouble.
According to the New York Times, the full board became disenchanted with Hunter when he began to outline his plans to expand the social agenda of the Coalition. Instead of focusing exclusively on gay marriage and abortion, Hunter told the group that Christians should also care about economic justice and the environment.
Hunter told the Times, “When we really got down to it, they said: ‘This just isn’t for us. It won’t speak to our base, so we just can’t go there.'”
Combs, for her part, blamed the rift on Hunter’s failure to understand what the board was expecting from their new president.
“We’re a political organization,” Combs told the Times. “There’s a way to do things, like surveying members and seeing what they need.”
But surely she knew. How could she not know? Hunter’s most recent book, Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won’t Fly With Most Conservative Christians, seems to say it all. Hunter argues in his book that Christian activism is too narrow when it only spends time on hot button issues like gay marriage while overlooking traditional concerns such as poverty.
We may never know what really happened here, but I have an idea. My guess is Roberta Combs herself would like to see the Coalition expand its range of issues. It could be that she is just being practical. There has been a shift among evangelicals about social issues, and perhaps she saw Hunter being able to tap into that.
But it could be that Combs has a genuine concern for the poor and the needy. Don’t forget that she came to Alabama in 2003 to lend support to Governor Riley’s massive effort at tax reform. Her stand was in direct opposition to the position taken by the Alabama Christian Coalition.
Writing in the Anniston Star in 2003 Combs expressed support for Riley’s tax plan on the basis of “its fairness and strong implications for social and economic justice.”
That sounds like something Joel Hunter might say, and most certainly did say in the course of his interview with Combs.
But when he made it clear to the whole board that he actually intended to do something about poverty and the environment, it was over. And even though Combs initially backed Hunter and in fact recruited him herself, in the end she was forced to dump her candidate. How sad if it turns out that Hunter’s views actually reflected her own.
If so, here’s the lesson: Political ideology, rigidly held, almost always trumps principle, even if biblically based. Or to put it differently, there is just so much Christianity that the Christian Coalition is willing to embrace.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.