The president-elect of the Christian Coalition announced Tuesday that he was stepping down, saying that the religious group appeared to balk at his proposals to focus on environmental and anti-poverty issues rather than on purely "moralistic" issues such as abortion.
The Rev. Joel C. Hunter, who was scheduled to become president of the coalition Jan. 1, said his departure was sparked by "just a basic philosophical difference .... I saw an opportunity to really broaden the conversation and broaden the constituency. I'm really over this whole polarization thing."
"I think the board just got scared," said Hunter, senior pastor of a mega-church in central Florida and the author of "Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won't Fly With Most Conservative Christians."
Roberta Combs, who is the incumbent president of the coalition and presides over its board, said that the board of directors was willing to branch out from the coalition's signature issues of abortion and gay marriage, and that the coalition has weighed in on a variety of issues, including Internet access and the tax burden on the poor. But she said that Hunter was acting too fast without consulting his superiors.
Hunter said he volunteered his resignation during a Nov. 21 board meeting; Combs said the board of directors invited him to resign.
Combs said Hunter failed to notify the board before he announced an initiative in October to combat global warming. The board favored the idea but wanted to survey its donors, Combs said.
Founded by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1989, the Washington-based coalition has struggled in recent years as some members have complained that it has ignored its core mission of supporting conservative Christian values. Chapters in Iowa, Alabama and Ohio left the organization this year.
Hunter, 58, accepted the post in July. As senior pastor at Northland, a Church Distributed, he had called for a new approach to religious politics.
"Conservative Christians need to be more ambidextrous than just 'right' or 'left' oriented," Hunter wrote in his book.
In an interview Tuesday, Hunter said that the coalition's board had initially signed off on this approach, but appeared to get cold feet. He said the board also backtracked on supporting his vision for the group to focus more on grass-roots organizing rather than on Washington-based advocacy.
"They have just been Washington-focused since their inception," Hunter said.
Combs said that the coalition, which claims more than 2 million members, believes the organization can serve its grass-roots base through activity in Washington.
"We come from a political background," Combs said. "That's our job."