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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Our next guest is the former evangelical pastor Joel Hunter. He served as President Barack Obama’s spiritual adviser for eight years, but then he voted for Donald Trump back in 2016. Well, this time around, he’s backing Vice President Joe Biden. Remember, of course, Christians form Trump’s base, but Hunter has formed a group called Pro-Life Evangelicals For Biden. Here he is speaking to our Michel Martin about what made him change.
MICHEL MARTIN: Pastor Joel Hunter, thank you so much for speaking with us.
JOEL HUNTER, PRO-LIFE EVANGELICALS FOR BIDEN: I’m honored. Glad to be on with you.
MARTIN: You voted for Trump in 2016. But you’re part of a group called Pro-Life Evangelicals For Biden. Why did you decide to join this group to help organize this group?
HUNTER: Well, first of all, we want to make sure that the pro-life agenda is expanded beyond birth. We’re no less anti-abortion, but we know that the people who die from the pandemic, the people who die from a lack of access to health care, people who die from poverty and the opioid crisis and suicide and racism and the impacts of climate change, on and on and on, are just as important to God as those people who are still in the womb. And so one of the things that we want to make sure of is that we are pro- life comprehensively. And we even believe that, if you pay attention to these other areas, it will reduce the choice for abortion. So it will ultimately reduce the number of abortions. We want to change the culture. We don’t want to just change policy.
MARTIN: It’s one thing to say you’re going to vote for someone in the privacy of voting booths. It’s quite another to sort of go forward and put a group together to publicly embrace a candidate. You are lending your personal stature to this enterprise.
MARTIN: So, why this? I mean, this, I think, is the first time you have done this. Why was this so important to you to do?
HUNTER: I am now an outcast to many people who I was close to. And I have had to pay a very high price to do this. I knew what was coming. When it — when the article in “The Washington Post” came out about this movement, and then, the very next day, a large article with my picture came out in “The Orlando Sentinel,” immediately, invitations to preach were withdrawn. I was taken off the air my daily devotions one of the — on the Christian radio station was taken off the air. Now, the curious thing about this is, these are my friends, but they were so afraid of losing income and so afraid of losing their constituency, that they just had to do that. So, I totally get that. But the point — there came a time in my life where I projected four more years of President Trump and that kind of division and the kind of hostility and the kind of the tone of personal attack, and what that would do to our capability of making policies that would actually solve the larger problems. I know Joe Biden. I worked with him a couple of times in the White House. He’s a good man. And he’s wired to put together those coalitions. Obama was a master of this, because he wanted people in the room who thought differently than he does. And he had the intellectual capability of surveying the room, of taking all that information, and then in making a decision. So, anyhow, it wasn’t just, I can’t do any more Trump. It is, I do think that Vice President Biden has the potential to put together coalitions from traditionally opposing organizations or people or parties or whatever you want to say, in order to get done what you can’t get done with an up-or- down vote with one party.
MARTIN: Was there a tipping point for you with President Trump that resolved it for you that you — at the very least, you couldn’t support him again, you couldn’t vote for him again?
HUNTER: Yes, this started very early, when he started categorizing immigrants as rapists and murderers and…
MARTIN: But that was the first day. Sir, that was the first day.
HUNTER: I know.
MARTIN: That was the very first day he announced his candidacy, but you voted for him anyway.
HUNTER: Well, I voted for him thinking that, OK, this is how he’s running. He’s appealing to this certain base. He’s appealing to people. I knew what that was. Then I realized there was a tone being sent down from the leader of our country into all of our country is that this is how we’re going to live. For people who disagree with us, we are going to count them as enemies. Our rhetoric is becoming — going to become weaponized. It’s not just a matter of disagreeing with respect. It’s now a weapon. There are winners and losers, and we’re going to become the winners. And opposite of the Gospel, it is me first, our country first, America first. Nobody else counts as much as we do. And that’s the opposite of the message of Jesus, which says, love your neighbor as you love yourself. They are as important as you are. And so you spend your life considering not only what’s good for you, but what’s good for them. So, that was kind of my progression.
MARTIN: President Trump has said he would deliver conservative judges. With the assistance of Republican Senate, he has done so. He has delivered on extremely conservative nominees to the — certainly to the Supreme Court. As you and I are speaking now, his third nominee, unexpectedly, is now being sort of considered. He’s delivered when it comes to that. And I think some would say, like the same way they said of former President Clinton, if you think he’s a disturbing — if you don’t like him as a human being, don’t hang out with him, but if these are the things that you want, that’s what you get.
MARTIN: And why isn’t that enough?
HUNTER: Well, this — that’s the point. I think that he has delivered. I do not disagree with his present nominee for the Supreme Court. I think she’s a great jurist and a wonderful human being. But the point is that, OK, he’s delivered on that. He’s delivered on some of the policies. I’m not against all of his policies. But there reaches a point of diminishing returns, when you say, who he is as a person or how he approaches the political sphere, in ways that are divisive and accusatory and will continue to divide our country — the Scripture says, as Lincoln quoted, a house divided cannot stand.
MARTIN: It was surprising to some people that so many evangelical, prominent evangelical leaders fell so hard for President Trump, because he just seemed to be antithetical to the values that these leaders say they hold. Why is that, in your view?
HUNTER: There are people who are willing to overlook personal behavior, personal rhetoric that doesn’t match the Gospel, doesn’t match what Jesus taught us, for the sake of policy support. And so that’s what a lot of the evangelicals were doing. He promised pro- life legislation. He promised a lot of conservative — he promised to pay attention to religious issues and religious protection. And, in 2016, there was some fear that the radical left were — would expunge the public square of religion and so on and so forth. So it’s kind of like the mafia deal, where you pay for protection. And that’s what they saw in President Trump. And, to be honest, that’s kind of what he’s delivered. He’s delivered justices. He’s delivered certain legislation toward protecting religious liberty, and so on and so forth. So, they got what they voted for. But, unfortunately, in my view, they got more than they voted for. I voted for him, because I didn’t think that Senator Clinton — or Secretary Clinton was really going to include faith issues in her administration. And he had promised — and, of course, I didn’t know who he was. So I said, well, we will take a chance. So I think that there were just a lot of folks who voted for him the first time who will not vote for him the second time, although he still has a vast majority of evangelicals.
MARTIN: You’re not alone. I mean, there are others in your group, including one of the, as I understand, a granddaughter of Billy Graham, as part of the group, who said similar things. She said that being pro-life is about more than being against abortion. It’s about a respect for life in all — throughout life.
HUNTER: We have actually had 5,000 people, over 5,000 people, sign on to that statement. Now, and the people that organized it were — we have been friends for quite a while. We have had positions of national leadership in the evangelical world. But, yes, as we say, we want to emphasize the whole counsel of God. We don’t want to just pick out one issue, and back everything up with Scripture, and make that the litmus test for everything we do. We want — the Bible says a whole lot about poverty, about helping the alien, about justice issues, and so on and so forth. And we want a comprehensive biblical approach to what we do in the public square.
MARTIN: I’m intrigued by some of the reaction that you have gotten from people who you consider to be your friends, I mean, like dropping you from your devotionals and your radio program and all these other things. How do you understand that? I mean, it just seems like you didn’t renounce your faith. I mean, you didn’t sort of pick your head up and say, you know what, all the things I have preached all these 30 years, I changed my mind.
MARTIN: You didn’t say that. You said, I don’t support this particular candidate. So what does that say?
MARTIN: And I support someone else. What do you think that means?
HUNTER: I totally sympathize with these people. I was the leader of a congregation, a pastor of a congregation for almost 50 years. And so I know what it is to not want to divide the congregation. I know what it is to be protective. I talked with a young pastor that has a huge congregation in our area. And he’s — and he was one of the ones that said, hey, let’s kind of withhold — let’s kind of do your preaching gig in our church until after the elections, and I will have you on probably in 2021. But he said — he said, Joel, I preached two weeks on Black Lives Matter, and I lost 20 percent of our of our contributions and 15 percent of my congregation. And so these are folks that are trying to protect their institutions, their assembled congregation. And so I totally get that. I sympathize with them. And they’re doing the best they can. But they’re also very uncomfortable with their position, because they know they should be speaking out on justice issues. They know, when it comes to matters of white supremacy, with Robert Jones’ book “The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” they know these are things that are important to portray the Gospel as it really is. But they’re afraid, especially of those voices that — I get mail every day, much of it unsigned, and I will never read anonymous letters. But they are afraid of the attackers. And there are so many more attackers these days.
MARTIN: Forgive me, Pastor. Doesn’t that suggest that there is a sort of a core of either racism or intolerance in this community that is not being addressed, that is, in fact, being enabled?
MARTIN: What does that say?
HUNTER: Absolutely. Absolutely, it does. And I think — and, full disclosure, right before I transitioned out of the — my pastorate, I had had forums on racism, on gun violence, on the inequities of the criminal justice system. And I had 800 LGBTQ folks come in and talk about how they’d been hurt from the church. And the leadership came to me said, you know, you’re — I was 69 at the time. Maybe you should think about transitioning to the next — so, that’s what they risk is. It’s a Faustian bargain to sell your soul for a little temporary power. But it’s very easy. And I can tell you, as a pastor, it’s very easy to justify, well, I don’t want to divide the congregation. And what about all of the staff? Do I put their jobs in danger? So, it’s very difficult. I don’t want to undersell the difficulty in being prophetic, properly prophetic, in the church. But I got to tell you, Michel, if the church doesn’t lead in the moral path forward, as far as justice, as far as equality, as far as being comprehensively pro-life, then we — it’s just not going to get done, because the people — people see us as the conscience. And if the conscience doesn’t speak up, we will just do whatever’s convenient and whatever is good for our group.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I was wondering, in a way, if there’s a part of you that feels that this current moment, the Trump administration, is in a way bad for faith…
MARTIN: … because it’s alienating to other people who might otherwise be attracted, who then look at that and say, these people have nothing for me, and are not willing to speak truth to power, as long as they benefit? I just wonder if there’s any way you might think that might be so.
HUNTER: Absolutely, it’s true, and especially for the younger generations that have no automatic loyalty to institutional religion. And they look at that, and they say, wait a minute. This is so different from how I thought Jesus was. This is so different from my — from what I hear, the love, God is love, and there’s no condemnation in Christ. And this is so different to what I hear. And so there is a very — I know the draw of power and the draw of withholding your voice, so that you can be near power. I was President Obama’s spiritual adviser for eight years, or one of them, wrote devotions every week. And I know the temptations I had of not speaking forward in areas where I disagreed with him. He could tell you that I did speak — I did do that, though. But I know how easy it is not to say what you need to say in order to be — have a photo-op in the Oval Office. It is just very, very tempting.
MARTIN: How do you feel now that you have put yourself out there? How do you feel?
HUNTER: I feel great. I did the right thing. And so I sleep very well at night. And I believe that it will give some other people permission to say, I need to think broader than just being anti-abortion. I can be anti-abortion, I can try to protect children in the womb, but maybe I can help an expectant mother choose not to get an abortion because she’s had the support and the resources to carry her baby to term. Maybe there are other ways we can think and accomplish our goals. So, I can live with myself. And I think I’m doing the right thing.
MARTIN: Pastor Joel Hunter, thank you so much for talking with us today.
HUNTER: Thank you.
About This Episode EXPAND
Professor Mariana Mazzucato discusses the pandemic’s economic devastation across the world. “Monty Python” co-founder Michael Palin reflects on his career. Pro-life evangelical leader Joel C. Hunter explains why he’s backing Biden in 2020.LEARN MORE