Robert Cunningham looks to combine Christian ideas and strategy for change

Published 12:38 pm Thursday, August 31, 2023

When he started a Christian blog, Robert Cunningham never expected it to lead to anything. He just enjoyed writing and sharing his opinions.

But now, over a decade later, it’s led to many opportunities, including stints as an opinion columnist at the Lexington Herald-Leader, a cultural commentator for Kentucky Sports Radio and most recently, a founder of a Christian nonprofit.

Cunningham will also be a regular contributor to Bluegrass Live beginning this month.

After attending seminary school, Cunningham served 17 years as the senior pastor at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church.

But he was always interested in public theology—the application of the Christian faith and worldview into the public square—he said.

He was curious about how Christianity intersected with culture and current events. But he didn’t find what he was looking for by reading others’ opinions.

“There’s not many, I think, compelling, thoughtful, but also kind and charitable, Christian voices out there, and so I kind of just started dabbling in it a little bit on my own blog,” he said.

Around 2015, a few of his posts went viral.

For example, Cunningham wrote one piece about why evangelicals were rallying around former President Donald Trump during his first Republican primary that he said “got published in just about everything” and got mentioned on national talk shows.

That’s when the Herald-Leader called about a monthly Christian opinion column. Cunningham did that until KSR’s Matt Jones asked him to contribute to his website with Christian cultural commentaries.

Jones and Cunningham have become good friends, he said, despite their sometimes differing political leanings. He said he thinks it’s healthy to have friendships with people with different perspectives.

“Because of the tribalistic nature of our society along with the algorithm method of information that we now live in, everybody now essentially exists in a 24/7 echo chamber,” he said. “All the information we consume agrees with us, disagrees with people we disagree with.”

He added that Jones and him find a surprising amount of common ground. When they don’t, he hopes they challenge each other to see things in a new light.

Cunningham said that he thinks that many Americans are growing tired of the extremes on both ends of the political spectrum, and there is a massive group coalescing toward the middle.

He hopes to speak to that middle, particularly in Kentucky. While he can and does write opinions on global and national developments, he said he prefers more local commentary on issues that impact Kentuckians.

“That’s why I enjoyed writing for KSR so much,” he said. “Because it enabled me to really give a Christian perspective on things that were taking place in our state, like the flooding in Eastern Kentucky.”

But Cunningham isn’t just talking. He’s putting his words into action.

This January, he founded Christ for Kentucky, a Christian nonprofit focused on combining thought leadership with strategic change for Kentucky.

He said he started Christ for Kentucky because he got discouraged with the inability of Christians to do “proactive forward thinking” that changed things for the better.

“I just wasn’t able to give much energy or attention to that as a conventional pastor, and now I feel like I have the freedom to wake up every day and just dream about what can I do to bless Kentucky?” he said. “What can I do to make Kentucky look or like heaven?”

Many of Christ for Kentucky’s projects are still under wraps, but Cunningham shared its first endeavor—eliminating medical debt in Kentucky’s poorest counties.

According to the Urban Institute, Kentucky has 17% of people living with medical debt, which includes 16% of white communities and 37% of communities of color.

This compares to a national average of 13%. Eastern Kentucky has some of the highest rates of medical debt in the state.

Typically, people who can’t pay their medical bills go into debt. If a hospital determines that it is unlikely to collect that debt, it sells it to a debt collection agency for pennies on the dollar, which then may hound debtors to retrieve that money.

Christ for Kentucky is partnering with RIP Medical Debt to buy medical debt from hospitals itself. But instead of collecting it from Kentucky debtors, they will forgive it, absorbing the cost themselves.

Cunningham said they are about to eliminate $9.5 million worth of medical debt for $50,000.

“It looks like we’re going to be able to go county by county through Kentucky and eliminate the medical debt of the poorest of the poor, starting with our poorest counties and just kind of making our way through Kentucky,” he said.

He said making a change requires more than an idea.

“That requires more than hot takes on medical poverty and what’s broken with the medical system,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got to couple the ideas with actual strategic creativity where we bring people with significant means, people with expertise, we bring them all to the table.”

 Robert Cunningham is the founder and director of Christ for Kentucky. Robert is the former Senior Pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church, where he served for seventeen years. He is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary and a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leicester, researching the role of religion in America’s founding era. He has been a regular contributor for the Lexington Herald-Leader and the religion and culture commentator for Kentucky Sports Radio. His writings and work have been featured in Christianity Today, WORLD Magazine, and the New York Times. Robert and his wife Abby have four sons—Holt, Charlie, Owen, and Henry. He is a native Kentuckian, and Christ for Kentucky was born out of an undying love for his home.