The Florida pastor who is one of President Obama’s spiritual advisers says he is “disappointed” by Obama’s decision to embrace gay marriage.
But in interviews over the last week, Joel Hunter, the evangelical pastor of 15,000-member Northland, a Church Distributed near Orlando, has taken a surprising tact. Despite Obama taking a stance strongly opposed by many evangelicals who consider Hunter a leader, the pastor himself has spoken positively about the president and his decision-making process on gay marriage, even while acknowledging their core difference on the issue.
“I think he’s a very serious man, he wants do the right thing,” Hunter said in an interview on NBC’s Andrew Mitchell Reports Wednesday, a view he has expressed in other public comments over the last week.
He added, “I love him and he’s a friend.”
WATCH JOEL HUNTER ON ‘ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS’ HERE:
The relationship between Obama and Hunter is a complicated one. It began back in 2008, when Obama started looking for both spiritual counsel and less controversial religious allies following the politically-damaging comments by his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Since he has entered office, Obama has not formally joined a church or closely associated with one pastor. Instead, he has occasionally sought on advice on policy matters that also have a religious component from a group that includes Hunter and T.D. Jakes, an African-American pastor who runs a church called the Potter’s House in Dallas. He has also held prayer phone calls with these leaders, who also include the Rev. Jim Wallis and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, according to the New York Times.
The relationships have benefits for both sides. For Hunter, Jakes and others, they can tout a relationship with the most powerful man in the country. For Obama, the alliance with Hunter in particular is helpful, because the Florida is a leader in a bloc of voters who are highly resistant to Democrats: white evangelical Christians.
Democrats don’t expect evangelicals to defect from the GOP just because Obama is allied with a few evangelical pastors, but they had hoped Obama would be viewed as a less controversial figure among evangelicals in part because of his relationship with Hunter and other religious leaders.
But three years into the presidency, any kind of broad acceptance of Obama by evangelicals is unlikely. His decision to support gay marriage was made easier by the fact that more religious voters are almost certain to vote against him anyway, so he had nothing to lose with them and could help energize his more liberal base. Polls suggest more than 70 percent percent of white evangelicals will vote for Romney, as they did for John McCain four years ago.
But this logic was hardly ideal for Hunter, who is trying to position himself in a Billy Graham-style role, a pastor who stands above politics and advises leaders from both parties. Few prominent pastors of large, mostly-white evangelical churches are publicly backing gay marriage, and Hunter similarly says his theology would prevent such a stance.
Last week, he seemed to be put in the position of allying with Obama and distancing himself from his religious colleagues or publicly opposing the president.
But for now, he is trying a third route. Hunter said when Obama called him to inform of his decision, the president already “knew where I was on this,” implying they had a frank conversation about their disagreements over gay marriage. But the pastor says that, while he will tell people who ask him that his view is that marriage is between a “man and a woman,” he has no plans to publicly scold Obama on the issue from the pulpit.
“I don’t preach political matters,” he says.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr