Who Is Joel Hunter, and Why Is Obama Praying with Him?

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Raoux / AP

Rev. Joel Hunter

Correction Appended: November 7, 2008

As Joel Hunter explains it, his telephone prayer session with Barack Obama on Tuesday, roughly 10 hours before Obama was declared winner of the presidential election, was not intended to be as intimate as it ended up. Obama, says Hunter, "just wanted to pray with some folks," and his religious liaison arranged a conference call with Hunter, Dallas Pentecostal megapastor T.D. Jakes, Houston Methodist minister (and George Bush favorite) Kirbyjon Caldwell and Otis Moss II, the retired pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland. But Obama was delayed, Jakes had to appear on live TV, and Caldwell had to board a plane, explains Hunter; so the candidate ended up praying with just Moss and Hunter. (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)

Hunter won't divulge the prayer's content other than to say that Obama "trusts God and the American people and just wanted to commend himself to each." The 60-year-old champion of what some call the New Evangelicalism also downplays the session's possible importance for his own status, noting that Obama has always been "very good about keeping religious leaders in the loop." Though he says he has prayed with Obama twice before, Hunter adds, "I find it hard to believe that I'm in the inner prayer circle."

Perhaps not, but as the only white Evangelical in the prospective quartet, Hunter would be a good candidate for the next President's bridge to white Evangelicalism, which he courted on Election Day but had only marginal success in winning over. Hunter is a bona fide megapastor in Orlando, Fla., and and a longtime mover in the Evangelical world. "For a long time now, Joel has been directly politically engaged as a Christian leader, in a nuanced and multifaceted way," notes Andy Crouch, editor of the Vision Project at the Evangelical monthly Christianity Today. On a number of key positions, morevoer, he has shown his independence of the religious right.

Hunter shares his movement's typical pro-life and anti-gay-marriage social commitments. But he became best known to the mainstream press in 2006 when an arrangement for him to take over as head of the Christian Coalition, the political machine founded by Pat Robertson, imploded as it became clear that Hunter intended to steer it into more moderate waters. He has since made a name (and Fundamentalist foes) combating global warming, championing comprehensive immigration reform and extolling a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Less ambiguously than any other leader (including Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren, who hedges more bets), Hunter is the avatar of the New Evangelicalism, which is increasingly contesting the priorities of classic religious-right figures like James Dobson. Given all this, it was not surprising that Hunter delivered the closing benediction at the Democratic Convention in August, or that he was asked to join Tuesday's prayer circle.

Hunter says he got to know Obama last spring during a long phone conversation. During the call, Hunter made a pitch for the expansion of faith-based partnerships between government and church. Of course, says the preacher, "that was an easy sell, because [Obama] really does want to call forth the American people to do volunteer service." He is aware that Obama's support for faith-based projects currently includes an important post-Bush caveat: programs receiving government money can't restrict their employees to co-religionists. Hunter opposes the restriction but maintains, "If we look hard enough, we can find suitable arrangements that really do protect both sides." He adds, "If you don't get into conversations that have never been entered into before, you will not win the kind of progress that has never been made before."

In fact, Hunter, author of the book A New Kind of Conservative: Cooperation Without Compromise, sees Obama as a kindred spirit. They both, he says, believe that "people with differences working together without compromising our values or losing our distinctives is essential for progress." Thus Hunter also plays down another potential bone of contention between the new President and Evangelicals — Obama's July 2007 pledge to Planned Parenthood that "the first thing I'd do, as President, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act" — a bill that could wipe out many of the inroads conservatives have made into strict interpretation of Roe v. Wade. "I think [the FCA] is a horrible idea," Hunter says. "But it's just a bill in committee," and it would take time to reach the presidential desk. "Circumstances and constituencies evolve, so I'm not sure that a promise he made to a particular constituency some time ago will even be relevant in two years."

That assumption might well outrage Planned Parenthood just as much as Hunter's position on global warming has infuriated some fellow Evangelicals. But if Obama wasn't kidding when, a few hours after praying with Hunter, he decried the "temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long," he may find the Floridian an excellent partner in his quest. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)

He may also especially like part of the sermon that Hunter plans to deliver this Sunday to Northland flock. Speaking about Tuesday's election results, Hunter will say, "God answered your prayers. If you pray, 'God, put who you want in the White House,' and you believe that God answers our prayers, then it is logical to assume that Barack Obama is God's answer to our prayers."

(See pictures of presidential First Dogs.)

The original version of this article incorrectly identified Otis Moss II as Otis Moss III, and stated that he succeeded Jeremiah Wright at Obama's old church in Chicago. Otis Moss II is a retired pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland.