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Where Obama Turns for Spiritual Advice: Rev. Joel Hunter

posted by nsymmonds

Apr. 12–He doesn’t thunder from the pulpit in righteous rage. He’d rather relay stories that make a moral point.
He has no catchphrases, fussy handlers or televised religious talk shows.
What the soft-spoken Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood does have is an evangelical church of 12,000, a talent for building diverse coalitions and a prominent spiritual advisory role in the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Not bad for a registered Republican who came to Central Florida in 1985 to take charge of a small flock that grew into one of the region’s largest megachurches.
As Hunter delivered his three Easter sermons at Northland, a Church Distributed, he holds a place in the national spotlight.
But it wasn’t something that seemed destined from the start.
The man who prayed with Obama on Inauguration Day lost his first preaching job when a United Methodist church in Indiana faced a crucial decision nearly 40 years ago: Should they buy new carpet or keep their youth minister, the motorcycle-riding evangelical called Pastor Joel?
New carpet won by a landslide.
“I wasn’t that great a shakes,” Hunter said.
But in the decades that followed, the hard-working pastor proved to be a formidable leader.
He has become a much-sought-after spokesman for a new brand of evangelicals who hope to tone down the rhetoric of culture wars while engaging in good works. Along the way, the 60-year-old pastor has sought alliances with Catholics, Jews and Muslims and irritated some traditional evangelicals, who worry that too much emphasis on social issues would nudge the Gospels to the sidelines.
While studying government and history at Ohio University, Hunter felt inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose sermons and civil-rights marches were changing the nation.
“He was my idol,” Hunter said.
When King was killed in 1968, it left the 19-year-old reeling. Desperate for answers, he went into a campus chapel, knelt in prayer and gave his life to Christ. Upon rising, he had found his calling as a minister.
Four decades later, when the nation’s first black president asked Hunter to join the White House’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Hunter felt a particular pride.
The invitation to the Oval Office was thrilling, yet Hunter said he doesn’t have time to be distracted by the honor. He has a big flock to tend and a vow to keep his $42 million state-of-the-art church the kind of place where his mother would have felt comfortable.
An alcoholic, she had great pride in her son, the captain of the high-school football team and president of the senior class. He in turn tried to save her by pouring out her liquor and lecturing her about her drinking. His father, a factory worker, had died of cancer when Hunter was 4.
It made for a complicated life.
His grandparents, coaches and neighbors in the small northern Ohio town of Shelby made sure that Hunter had a stable place to turn when times got rough. But in the 1950s, treatment options for alcoholism were few, and nobody knew how to help his mom. She died in 1971, while Hunter was in seminary training.
“My mother had a beautiful singing voice,” Hunter recalled. “Soft and resonant like Nat King Cole’s. She could have been a gift to a church. The church didn’t reach out to her. But Northland would. My mother would have loved Northland.”
Those memories still shape his ministry.
“It’s almost like redeeming that [past],” Hunter said. “I’m sensitive to those people who aren’t the ‘religious type,’ but who have incredible God-given gifts and could be a gift to a church.”
In 2006, the Christian Coalition — the conservative lobby founded by Pat Robertson — invited Hunter to take the reins.
Hunter hoped to expand the group’s agenda beyond fighting abortion and gay marriage. His idea was to embrace environmentalism as an act of caring for God’s creation and to redefine “pro-life” to include poverty and hunger.
But it turned out to be a bad fit, and Hunter withdrew before actually taking office.
Two years later, the pastor was giving the closing benediction at the Democratic convention in Denver. He concluded his prayer in an innovative way, asking spectators to speak the blessing they would use in their own faith traditions.
D. Michael Lindsay, author of a study of evangelicals called “Faith in the Halls of Power,” said the benediction was a case where a sincere effort to include many views led to “intentional ambiguity.”
The sociologist at Rice University credits Hunter with “great pastoral gifts” and a style that resonates with many who want to look past endless brawls over religious hot-button issues.
“It seems he has been scratching an itch that others hadn’t noticed,” Lindsay said.
But some evangelicals did notice his unorthodox, all-inclusive prayer.
Bob Parker, pastor of First Baptist Church Markham Woods in Lake Mary, said Hunter missed a chance to tell the Democratic convention that “Christ is the only savior.”
Parker, who headed the Moral Majority in Kentucky before coming to Central Florida, said he worries about attempts to broaden the agenda of evangelicals.
“Jesus said the way is narrow,” Parker said.
Although Hunter is far from invisible in Central Florida, he has kept his distance from local elections.
“I don’t think he aspires to [political prominence],” said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at University of Central Florida.
Still, Jewett notes the pastor is currently walking along the edges of political territory. “You don’t accept the position of a national office unless you have an idea of influencing policy on a broader basis,” he said.
Hunter said he has no plans to pursue politics but looks forward to working with Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders on a national level to address social ills, as he has done locally.
Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, speaks glowingly of Hunter and his wife. The imam sees little difference between the relatively unknown pastor who reached out to him about 15 years ago and the man who recently made the front page of The New York Times.
“I’ve seen him increase in humbleness and generosity,” Musri said. “Even after September 11, when it wasn’t very popular to talk to Muslims, he stood by us and spoke kindly about us from the pulpit.”
Hunter rarely seems vexed by critics, but he did vent some frustration at both liberal and conservative commentators “who profit on polarization.”
Speaking at an interfaith forum on torture a few months ago in Orlando, Hunter was troubled about the long-term effects of people listening to the “cottage industry of hostility” and “people who are literally paid to make people angry. People who are literally paid to create enemies, so we can feel good about ourselves.”
He added: “I don’t know how much the rest of the religious leaders up here have to face this, but I tell you, I get nasty, nasty, letters every time I stand up for the poor, the immigrant, the torture victims — all these compassion issues — from my own people.”
Generally, though, the criticisms sting his family more.
Becky Hunter gets irked by blogs that question the Christian character of the man she knew she would marry the first time she saw him in church in 1970. One theme that troubles her: Obama uses her husband to score points with conservatives.
Both Hunters warmly praise Obama for his intellect and personality. But to those who fear the liberal and charismatic president will transform the church leader from Longwood, the pastor’s wife notes firmly: “What makes you think that if Joel Hunter and Barack Obama were in a room that Joel Hunter would be the one to change his mind?”
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News – April 12, 2009
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  • nnmns

    Along the way, the 60-year-old pastor has sought alliances with Catholics, Jews and Muslims and irritated some traditional evangelicals, who worry that too much emphasis on social issues would nudge the Gospels to the sidelines.

    That’s a hoot coming from Evangelicals who obsess about abortion and homosexuality, neither of which words occur in the Bible. But they ignore divorce, which I understand Jesus condemned. Those Evangelicals have a lot to answer for due to their grubbing for power.

  • Henrietta22

    Quote: Mrs. Hunter said, “What makes you think that if Joel Hunter, and Barack Obama were in the same room that Joel Hunter would be the one to change his mind?”
    I’m sure this was said as a joke, or was it? President Obama would be the last person to try and change a ministers mind, but a minister would never give-up trying to change or challange anyone he opposes.

  • Nate W

    Henrietta,
    Why do you think that Obama would be “the last person” to try to change someone’s mind? Are you telling me that if a minister was going around spreading a message that contradicted Obama’s own social goals, and they sat down and had a talk, Obama would do nothing to try to influence the minister’s thinking? On what basis can you possibly make such a claim?

  • cknuck

    nnmns both homosexuality and abortion is in the bible the abortion is full birth abortion probably because the technology of partial birth abortion was unknow and in the womb abortion unheard of. Homosexuality is referred to in the bible in a most negative light up to six times. I don’t know why you brought up the subject relating to this article but you should get your facts right.

  • nnmns

    cknuck, document. Start with abortion. Quote the verse(s). I’m very confident you can’t find “abortion” the word, but I want to see what you think refers to abortion.
    And I brought it up because of the irony in “and irritated some traditional evangelicals, who worry that too much emphasis on social issues would nudge the Gospels to the sidelines.” How could you push the Gospels to the sidelines more than by tossing aside concern for the poor to obsess about punishing women and families who need abortions and homosexuals who need to mary their soulmates.

  • Henrietta22

    O.k. Nate; why do I think he wouldn’t try to change a ministers mind, he has his own understanding of his beliefs and would state what they are to the Minister. If these beliefs were absorbed in thought by the minister and the minister changed his mind I’m sure Obama would be happy to hear that his beliefs helped to clarify the ministers thoughts. President Obama’s charcter is not one of lecturing, it is one of teaching and patience. How do I know this? I just do.

  • nnmns

    cknuck, are you there? You’ve waited till far fewer people will see this; maybe I’ll challenge you again next time you talk about abortion.

  • cknuck

    I am here nnmns but I also have duties in the real world so pardon my absence; of course the word is not mentioned but the word itself has very little comfort to the babies mentioned in the bible who suffered sacrifice (abortion) to the what is known as the abortion god: “You will not allow any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech…”
    by the way nnmns you can challenge me anytime, I’ve fed over 300 people today, taught 2 classes and counseled 3 men, took my wife out for dinner comforted her and met your challenge. Let’s do it again soon.

  • nnmns

    No, cknuck, you haven’t met my challenge. But I’m glad you fed those people and your wife.

  • nnmns

    I’ve been doing a little reading on Mol(e/o)ch. I didn’t see anything scholarly about abortions, but if you have a reference please provide it.
    I did see some anti-abortion sites that, apparently realizing the traditional verses claimed to show “God’s” opposition to abortion did nothing such, have tried to equate the storied sacrifices of actual children to a god to the abortion of blastocysts, zygotes, embryos and the occasional fetus by women and families who need those abortions.
    While the Moloch stories provide cautionary tales about getting too involved in religious beliefs, and they indicate Judaism was in some ways clearly an improvement over some of its competing religions, they have nothing to do with the abortion debate or with showing your god opposes abortion. Your god opposed all his competing gods. If he opposed abortion he had every opportunity to say so directly. He did not.

  • Your Name

    nnmns you probably don’t realize that our God does not call any of us blastocysts, zygotes, embryos or fetus, but He says He knew us before we were in our mother’s womb. So when He admonished the people not to spill “innocent blood” part of that was the babies that you separate by a few days to be names less than human so they can be considered a little more than inconvenience ” So the god they would be offered up to would be the god of convenience and so there is no troubling of the conscience then we will name them blastocysts, zygotes, embryos or fetus. Someone once said “what we don’t know could fill a universe” nnmns.

  • cknuck

    by the way that was me

  • nnmns

    “Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child. But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord. Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth. See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.”
    Jeremiah 1:4-10

    I believe that’s the whole text you cut and pasted from. And your god wasn’t talking to you or to any normal person, he was talking to the prophet Jeremiah, whom I presume you also consider special.
    By the sort of reasoning you try to apply we couldn’t kill anything because to the extend your god knew any of us in the womb he knew us all, animals included.

  • cknuck

    It’s easy to understand why “you” would think that kind of relationship would be limited because you assume a limited God. “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not: ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
    That’s the thing many miss for every person, hero, prophet even king were “normal” persons.
    You see with your belief you see the people my God see and ask us to see as blastocysts, zygotes, embryos or fetus, and because of your belief even though they are living you have the right to bring harm to them and kill them.
    My way of believing I just don’t have that right.

  • nnmns

    I thought you were in the military. Were you an ambulance driver or some such never-fighting position? Otherwise how could you know you wouldn’t have to harm a hair on someone’s head?

  • nnmns

    And how can you be so sure about what your god sees? Oh, dumb question; your god is in your head so it sees what you see.
    And I don’t see you as anything but a person. You were all those other things then you were born and now you are a person.

  • cknuck

    nnmns your responses are confusing.

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