A Mixed Blessing


Networks cut away from Joel Hunter’s benediction at the Democratic Convention, likely sparing the conservative local pastor further criticism from his brethren

As he stepped up to the podium at the Democratic National Convention to deliver the closing benediction, the Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood’s Northland, A Church Distributed, instantly lost an estimated 38 million television viewers. Except for C-SPAN, all networks broadcasting convention coverage cut away to pundits analyzing Barack Obama’s just-concluded, historic acceptance speech at Denver’s INVESCO Mile High Stadium.

The mega-church pastor had a live, in-person audience of 84,000, the biggest in his career, albeit one composed almost entirely of Democrats. Hunter’s appearance August 28 was the latest evidence that he is a rising star in the firmament of younger national leaders who want to shift the evangelicals’ ideological center of gravity from the far right to the center right, and to adopt a broader social agenda.  

Might getting elbowed aside have been a mixed blessing for Hunter? “Maybe,” admits the amiable preacher, a registered Republican who voted for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in our state’s GOP primary. If he had reached all those millions, “I probably would have gotten even more e-mail and pushback.” 

Ever since the Democratic National Committee announced that Hunter, 60, would give the closing blessing, he says he was privately lambasted by some Christian leaders around the country. “There were half a dozen nationally known evangelical leaders that tried to dissuade me from going to the Democratic National Convention, but their concerns were more political than spiritual,” he says. Cameron Strang, publisher of Orlando-based Relevant magazine, accepted a similar invitation, but then backed out under pressure.

Hunter says he felt comfortable with his decision to address the convention only after Billy Graham, the closest thing American Protestants have to a pope, told him that giving the benediction would be a “magnificent opportunity.” 

Hunter’s invitation to speak was part of the Democrats’ charm offensive aimed at peeling away enough white evangelical voters to pick off a few swingable red states in the Sunbelt–like Florida. As author of A New Kind of Conservative (original title, Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won’t Fly With Most Conservative Christians), and pastor of a large, predominantly white, middle-class, suburban congregation, he was a likely choice. Backstage, he got to schmooze with Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Who will Hunter vote for in next month’s presidential election, Obama or John McCain? He’s not saying—and he doesn’t plan to reveal his choice, either.

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