5/20/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
The day after the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death, National Public Radio reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty interviewed the Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of the 7,000-member Northland Church in Orlando. Hunter had little trouble distancing himself from Falwell, who overshadowed evangelical thought for two decades.
As I listened to the interview, I hoped that Hunter’s message was a sign that Falwell’s divisiveness would continue to fade in U.S. politics.
Disagreeing with Falwell that global warming is a liberal trick to divert evangelicals’ “energies from the message and vision of the church, to something less,” Hunter, a supporter of environmental issues, said: “Let me tell you one of the reasons I’m so keen on taking care of the environment. It’s not just because it’s beautiful, which it is. But it’s the first order we had when we got put into the garden: Cultivate it and keep it.”
Regarding the narrow strategies of groups such as the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, Hunter said: “The problem has become that we have paid so much attention to the human being in the womb that we forgot about the human being out of the womb. It’s become such a focus for some leaders that they don’t want to address the other prolife issues such as climate change, such as poverty, such as AIDS.”
This apparent broadening of the evangelical agenda can only be good for the nation. If this trend is real and if it continues, as I have mentioned, the viciousness pervading U.S. politics since the 1980s will lessen.
Democratic and GOP leaders are paying attention. According to NPR, the votes of as many as 40-million young, disaffected white evangelicals are in limbo as the 2008 presidential election approaches.
Many young evangelicals and other Christians, especially blacks, may be altering their concept of competent leadership in the White House. Two days before Falwell’s death, ironically, Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the nondenominational Potter’s House church in Dallas, said during an NPR interview that religion in general in America is struggling with its relationship to politics, especially presidential politics.
Jakes, considered by many to be the most powerful black person in the United States, who counseled Bill Clinton and now counsels George W. Bush, argues that when Christians enter politics during these dangerous times, they should be more open-minded than in the past.
“Many times we’ve allowed ourselves to be taken up under the control of this party or that party, and I think that’s dangerous when you do that because I don’t think that God should be assigned to a party,” he said. “When the party goes bad, then the clergy are embarrassed. And I think that faith should transcend politics.”
At his megachurch, Jakes preaches what is referred to as “entrepreneurial evangelism.” In addition to sermons from the pulpit, he uses movies, books and music to reach his mostly black congregants and other followers with a motivational message that addresses a wide range of issues, including “the morality and the immorality of war,” education, health care for the elderly and for average Americans and the plight of the poor.
Jakes, along with a handful of other ministers, does not use what he calls the “camouflage of faith” as the litmus test for the presidency. He said he cares about the whole character of the candidates and their sense of fairness and inclusiveness.
“I think it’s important that a presidential candidate have some consciousness of faith and spirituality and morality,” He said. “But I am not myopic to the extent that I think that that should be the diffuser as to who we vote for. Because I think, if you’re going to be an effective leader – whether you’re a Christian or a Mormon or what have you – you can’t just be the president of Christians. You have to be the president of the United States, which incorporates atheists, agnostics and all brands of faith. And many, many Christians don’t understand that. They see this as a Christian nation. But I don’t see it as a theocracy. I see it as a democracy.”
Although Jakes did not refer to Bush by name, I sensed his displeasure with the president when he described the kind of person he wants at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. : “Whoever moves into the White House now is going to have to be wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove, effective in building relationships internationally. They’re going to have to have the agility of thought and the dexterity of mind to be able to bring the nation together. I’m looking for somebody who brings people together rather than plays on our worst fears.”
If the views of Jakes and Hunter represent the post-Falwell era of Christian faith in America, the future will be brighter for all of us.