By BETH REINHARD
LONGWOOD — Joel Hunter — Christian evangelical, pastor of a Central Florida megachurch and lifelong Republican — gave the benediction at the Democratic National Convention. He prayed with Barack Obama on Election Day, and rode to the inauguration with Oprah.
At the swearing in, he sat in the 12th row, next to boxing icon Muhammad Ali.
“I’m like, ‘What am I doing here?’” said Hunter, who recounted his experience before leading his fifth service in three days. “It’s surreal.”
The Midwestern transplant who voted twice for George W. Bush and backed religious conservative Mike Huckabee in last year’s GOP primary isn’t accustomed to overtures from Democratic politicos and the celebrities who come with them. But in keeping with Obama’s unprecedented outreach to the religious right during the campaign, the White House plucked Hunter to serve on a 25-member advisory council that also includes a reform rabbi, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the first female bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is an extension of Bush’s office directing tax dollars to faith-based social service agencies. The difference: Obama’s group will actually weigh in on policy matters.
“President Obama’s vision is so much broader. How do you engage churchgoers and people of faith to be part of the solution?” Hunter asked during a recent interview in his office at Northland Church. “That’s something we never talked about in the Bush era. I think we’re at a moment in time when people really want to be inspired and re-engaged.”
The mixing of religion and politics has drawn fire from the left and the right. Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State accuse Obama of going back on his word by refusing to scrap a Bush policy allowing federally funded religious groups to discriminate against job candidates who don’t share their beliefs.
On the other end of the spectrum, some Christian leaders and members of Hunter’s church cringe over his relationship with an administration that favors abortion rights and other liberal causes.
“It’s important for spiritual leaders to stand firm on matters of principle,” said Dennis Baxley, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida and a former state legislator.
“He’s basically being used by the administration.”
Hunter, 60, is part of a new breed of evangelicals seeking to forge common ground instead of fighting culture wars. He’s focused on what he terms “compassion issues’’ — the environment, poverty, immigration reform and peace — instead of on wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage.
His broader agenda prompted his resignation as the incoming president of the Christian Coalition of America in 2006, just two months after the socially conservative organization offered him the job.
Still, Hunter says he hasn’t ignored abortion altogether.
Just last month, he spoke out before Obama was poised to lift a ban on federal aid to international family planning organizations.
Knowing that Democratic presidents have used the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade to make sweeping statements on abortion rights, Hunter helped persuade Obama to wait until one day later to soften the blow to the religious right.
“He has always offered honest advice and guidance to the president, and we know we can always count on him for an independent opinion on the issues that confront our nation, today,” said a statement from Joshua DuBois, Obama’s right-hand man on religious affairs.
Hunter and Obama share more than a desire to transcend partisan politics. Just like
Obama’s campaign used the Internet to cultivate a massive donor and volunteer network,
Hunter’s non-denominational church embraces technology to reach as many as 12,000 people every week.
Northland claims to be the only church in the country offering interactive services for on-line worshipers in real time. Internet users can tell who else is participating — even in other states and countries — and communicate with them, as well as with an on-line minister.
These e-worshippers are even addressed from the pulpit. “If you’re in Starbucks, stand up!’’ Hunter implored during a recent service.
Hunter was so intent on emphasizing the church’s reach that he changed its name in 1998 from “a community church’’ to “a church distributed.”
“A church ought to be engaging people where they are and getting resources to them, instead of gathering them all in one place,” he said.
“The church is basically a communication device, with a sanctuary attached. Most of our growth will depend on people who never will never step foot in here.”
Here’s what they miss in person: a colorful light show, 12-member troupe of singers and musicians belting out Christian rock and ballads, and three giant television screens magnifying the 5-foot-6 pastor.
What Hunter lacks in height he makes up for in body language. He uses his elbows, knees and back in broad gestures to tell stories from the Bible and impart moral lessons.
He squints and purses his lips for comic effect. He resembles George W. Bush — in a black shirt and silvery tie that look like they came from Tony Soprano’s closet.
Grabbing the attention of churchgoers prone to fidgeting, Hunter cries, “Don’t freak out!’’ when he brings up the subversive, bestselling book, The Shack, which portrays God as a full-figured black woman.
Later in the service, after a handful of parishioners accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior for the first time, he declares, “Happy Birthday! You just got born again.”
When Hunter arrived at Northland in 1985, he found about 200 members praying in an old roller skating rink.
Two years ago, the church opened a $43 million campus featuring a bookstore, a cafe that serves wraps and paninis, and a 3,100-seat sanctuary that doubles as a concert venue.
Hunter seems to live modestly for the leader of an out-sized church, with a two-door Hyundai and home in middle-class Casselberry.
The husband and father of three grown sons often goes by “Pastor Joel,” or simply, “Joel.”
Hunter’s political and spiritual awakening occurred when he was a student in the late 1960s at Ohio University.
He joined student protests and hitchhiked to civil rights battlegrounds like Selma and Birmingham in a neatly trimmed beard and suit.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, was what led him to Jesus at the age of 20.
Four decades later, Hunter is widely beloved at his church, even among some parishioners who disagree with his politics and don’t care for Obama.
“It’s better to have his ear than not,” said Anders Lindberg, a 47-year-old business development manager who came to pray on a recent evening.
“Even if you don’t agree with someone, that doesn’t mean you ignore them. Jesus didn’t just talk to believers.”
Not every churchgoer could abide Hunter’s ties to the administration.
Weary of Hunter’s occasional preaching about global warming and immigration reform, and disgusted by his role at the Democratic National Convention, John Mitchell quit the church after 13 years.
“These things became distractions for me,” said Mitchell, a 53-year-old lawyer and father of five. “I go to church to worship God.”
Mitchell added that he has a “tremendous amount of respect’’ for his longtime pastor but felt that his appearance at a political party convention amounted to an inappropriate endorsement, even though Hunter never made it official.
“I’m going to continue to pray for him,” he said.
“I hope this experience doesn’t change him too much, but I don’t think you can help being influenced at those higher levels.”