As The Washington Post first reported last night , President Obama called the Rev. Joel Hunter, one of his spiritual advisers, shortly after he wrapped up his interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts in which he affirmed his support for same-sex marriage.
The president and the pastor spoke for 15 minutes, as Hunter, who had been driving with his wife in their home town of Orlando, Fla., pulled into a parking lot to listen. The pastor said he told the president that he did not agree with his view.
Here’s another tidbit from our interview with Hunter: Obama expressed concern that his full embrace of gay marriage was now putting the evangelical mega-church leader in an uncomfortable spot.
“We have a close relationship,” Hunter told The Post. “And he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t in a really precarious position by not knowing what he had done, and he wanted to make sure our relationship was solid.”
Hunter assured the president that the relationship was fine.
“Of course it is,” Hunter said. “A pastor doesn’t abandon people because he happens to disagree with the decisions that they’ve made.”
Still, Hunter was not pleased. Upon answering his phone when a Post reporter called, Hunter sounded exasperated. “I’ve had better days,” he groaned.
The pastor went on to explain that, from his church’s perspective, even a symbolic gesture by the president (Obama made clear he was not pursuing a policy shift and was expressing personal views) could foreshadow future laws that could force religious institutions’ hands.
His fears were not soothed by assurances from Obama and the White House that the president’s view would have no bearing on churches or religious groups. Obama said that these organizations should make their own decisions on whether to marry same-sex couples. In their conversation, Hunter said Obama referred to his belief in “civil marriage” for gays and lesbians, drawing a distinction between relationships sanctioned by the government and those by churches.
“If there is a law that you cannot discriminate between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples, then, eventually, there will be pressure on the church to obey the law,” Hunter said. “And there will be lawsuits that come testing this thing, and we just know that we will certainly be pressured to conform to the law.”
Hunter continued: “As we see this possibly getting written into the Democratic Party platform, we look down the road. And the conversation I hear among religious leaders is that when you have this kind of powerful voice in the government and even an entire party talking about marriage non-discrimination, then there will be laws put in place somewhere down the line.”
Such comments from Hunter underscore the political dangers and tension points for Obama in the months ahead.
The president, since his 2008 campaign, has taken extraordinary steps to forge ties with religious groups, particularly those whose memberships tend to be socially conservative. Hunter was a key part of that effort – a high-profile, white, evangelical pastor who could tell his flock that this African American president with an unusual family background was indeed a good and faithful Christian.
That outreach – including Obama’s decision to include an invocation by Pastor Rick Warren during his inaugural festivities -- often created tension with the gay and lesbian community, the very group Obama pleased the most with his declaration this week.
The open question is whether Obama’s move this week on gay marriage means that he now feels that his reelection campaign will hinge more on motivating his base than on trying to appeal more socially conservative swing voters. Alternatively, if friends like Hunter remain dismayed and worried, that could help presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney reenergize the mega-churches, just as George W. Bush did in 2004 (with the assist of some well-timed initiatives against gay marriage).