TheBlaze’s Billy Hallowell contributed to this report.
President Barack Obama’s spiritual adviser, Joel Hunter, may be losing his footing in conservative evangelical circles where he was once supported. His continued connection to the commander in chief, despite major social and political rifts, may be a driving reason for the loss of support that Hunter, 65, is experiencing.
Most recently, it was reported that the preacher has paid the price for his move away from conservative politics: His house of worship, Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., has lost an estimated 10 percent of its congregants.
Looking back at Hunter’s history, it may be understandable why his more moderate stances and his work with Obama would create some angst among more conservative church members. If you’ll recall, the faith leader made waves back in April of 2012 when he questioned the practicality of total subsidiarity — that is, a small-government policy that employs smaller, private institutions in tending to the needs of citizens, looking to the government as an overarching last resort.
Specifically, Hunter stated his belief that it is impossible for the church to replace the government in feeding the poor and taking on other essential civil issues. According to the faith leader, the government is a necessary, even biblical, establishment in which believers are called to participate and contribute.
“Government can’t change lives, but they have resources we don’t have. We can change lives with those resources,” Hunter said at the time during the Q conference, a popular Christian gathering. “The point is government isn’t the enemy, and government isn’t the answer. But government is the potential partner that we look for, that we might need.”
Two years before Hunter’s small-government comments, in March 2010, Christianity Today reported about his overt and official severance from the GOP. The reason, Hunter claimed, was an uneasiness he felt about identifying with any particular political Party, which often leads to partisanship and fosters division. After four decades as a Republican, he decidedly left the party; interestingly, this unfolded after he began advising Obama.
Since his decision to become one of the primary religious voices for the Obama White House, Hunter has been listed as one of Orlando Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful” citizens for three consecutive years (2009 to 2011). His escalating public influence has landed him appearances on shows like CBS’ “The Early Show,” PBS’ “Religion & Ethics” and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” And parishioners have taken notice.
On Tuesday, July 9, RNS posted an article announcing a significant drop in Northland attendees. Hunter’s megachurch of 15,000 has lost, as stated, an estimated 10 percent of its membership due to his involvement in the secular and political realms. His shift from right to center-right has led some to believe that Hunter is too willing to compromise his beliefs and succumb to a spirit of tolerance and passivism.
As for abortion and gay marriage, Hunter opposes both. But on climate change, he sides with Obama. His views are certainly not entirely left-of-center, but the mechanics of how he speaks about and handles sociopolitical issues isn’t necessarily in lock-step with most conservative Christians.
Hunter is also the author of “A New Kind of Conservative,” a book that explains how Christian conservatives should approach political issues such as abortion, marriage, poverty, justice and environmental activism. And Northland Church, Hunter’s congregation in Longwood, describes him on their website as “a longtime bridge-builder who seeks common ground for the common good,” who “approaches today’s issues in a biblical and balanced manner.”
Additionally, Hunter’s personal website describes the pastor as an evangelical who has “left the right.” In January of this year, he ran a post that explains: “…I may not yet be representative of my generation or profession in my political openness, but I am one of a growing number of white evangelicals who are making biblically-based decisions on an issue-by-issue basis, in a wider circle of conversations than ever.”
He describes political division as something that if intellectually and spiritually “stifling.”
All of this considered, a question that many evangelicals are asking with regard to Hunter is: How can you stand by Obama — someone who has no problem supporting bills that defend late-term abortion and same-sex marriage? After all, both political parties are divisive and Obama, like other politicians, has been a part of that problem. Plus, the issues that Hunter believes strongly in — abortion and gay marriage — create a notable ideological divide between him and the president.
Also, there’s the contraceptive mandate, which has riled religious people. The National Journal reported Hunter’s response to the Obama administration’s requirement that church-affiliated institutions include birth control in their employee health insurance plans:
“‘The boundaries of religious freedom and identity are being trespassed,’ said Hunter, who still writes weekly devotions for Obama and visited the Oval Office last week; he said he keeps his spiritual guidance separate from any policy recommendations he funnels to the president. ‘I do think this will have political repercussions in the religious community,’ Hunter added. ‘This has the potential to be a breaking point.’”
Mark I. Pinsky, the religion reporter who wrote the RNS article concerning Northland’s congregation dip, did an interview with PBS in 2009, in which he assessed Hunter’s approach to politics in light of his ministry. Pinsky applauded Hunter for determining to weld the political schism within his congregation in order to direct worshipers towards a common cause. The writer judged that Hunter’s credentials would allow him to reach out to both Democrats and Republicans without facing “serious consequences to his base.”
But if the church decrease is true, then the base has certainly been impacted.
A natural question some are asking is: Where will Hunter draw the line? Although he was not in agreement with Obama’s choice to endorse same-sex marriage or the contraceptive mandate, he continues to support the president. Thus, another question pressing many conservative evangelicals is: What would have to happen for Hunter to cut off ties with Obama?
Hunter accepts the loss of support as the result of his moderate principles. The pastor recently announced on Northland’s website that he will be taking a sabbatical for the month of July. During this period, he hopes to reflect on his pastoral role in the “next season” of the church’s development. He ended his address to the Northland congregation with blessings and a request for prayer that he may make the right decision.
For now, parishoners will wait until August to receive a much-anticipated update from Hunter regarding his future work, locally and nationally.