Hottinger’s religious, political studies resulted in a spiritual awakening

GREENVILLE—For someone only a nod away from the pinnacle in the realm of national politics, working in Greenville would seem a step in the opposite direction. Not for David Tiede Hottinger.

Hottinger is an assistant to Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor at St. Mary Church, and he covered a lot of ground to get there.

Adopted at birth in Toledo, Ohio, 35 years ago, Hottinger’s parents raised him in the Church of Christ. While in high school, he became active in the United Methodist Church, joining a congregation headed by then Pastor C. Joseph Sprague.

Sprague, now a UMC bishop, had been active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, and remained vocal in social justice circles into the 1980s. “What Joe did well was to combine the head and the heart,” Hottinger said.

The young man then joined the Democratic party after graduating in 1986. He enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio majoring in religion and government.

“I became very focused on the role of religion in international affairs; what the church was doing at the time in Central America and the Middle East.” His Christian development, however, remained an intellectual one.

“I was moving increasingly away from any kind of ongoing commitment to the life of faith,” he said. “I completely abandoned spiritual discipline.”

After graduation in 1990, Hottinger spent 18 months in Jerusalem. He landed in Israel just hours after Iraq invaded Kuwait. He was there when then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered missile attacks against Israel after the United States entered the Gulf War.

While attending classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hottinger got a job with the Lutheran World Federation Department of World Services, the equivalent to Catholic Relief Services. He did communications work for the Federation, which runs a large Palestinian refugee hospital on the West Bank.

He spent half his time living and studying with Israelis and the other working and living with Palestinians.

“That was a very tumultuous, exciting and disillusioning experience in my life,” he said. But, it also was a period when Catholicism stepped in.

For the first time, Hottinger was exposed to ancient Christianity as it is lived daily — walking the streets of Jerusalem and meeting religious orders and priests from all over the world who had come to live in the Holy Land.

“That really fired my longing for a deeper sense of Christian history,” he said, an important part of his faith journey that Hottinger said was missing during his years in the Protestant church. Growing up, Hottinger had learned a lot about the Old and New Testaments, “but church history skipped to the 18th and 19th centuries.” Those ancient churches became a refuge as he tried to sort out the growing conflict in his spiritual life, and survive in a violent part of the world. He began reading more Catholic theology and church history, but he still had issues to overcome.

Hottinger returned to the U.S. in 1991 at a loss of what to do with his life. A lot of that idealism he took with him to Jerusalem had vanished.

He went to work as a personal aide to then Ohio Attorney General and fellow Oberlin graduate Bill Fisher. But he kept his ties to the United Methodist Church, teaching Sunday school classes. That same year, Fisher was named Ohio chairman for the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign.

Hottinger was offered a spot on the Clinton-Gore transition team following the ’92 election. It marked a period of what Hottinger calls “another level of disillusionment.”

“At that level, politics becomes a religion,” he said.

He applied to divinity school, with the intention of further academic work. Christianity remained an “intellectual construct” for Hottinger, but the Scripture he learned as a child was always there for him to fall back on.

“I never really lost that foundation that was laid for me growing up, and I kept coming back to it during moments of crisis in my life.” Hottinger had a great respect for the church but was unwilling to surrender to God.

That image of self couldn’t have reached any higher than in 1992, the year Clinton and Gore were elected to the White House and Hottinger was offered a seat on the administration’s transition team. But he was beginning to hear a higher calling. He was accepted to divinity school at Harvard.

After weeks of struggling over his decision, Hottinger chose God. But he was interested in religion’s impact on American politics and world affairs.

His life took a sharp turn toward Catholicism at Harvard. He met Father Bryan Hehir, who became his divinity school advisor, when he enrolled in the priest’s introduction to Catholic social teaching class.

That was where he read all of the papal encyclicals on social teaching from Leo XIII to John Paul II, and major documents of Vatican Council II.

“This whole new world began to open up for me,” he said. “I began to make the connection between the beautiful churches I had experienced in the Holy Land, and this great sense of reverence and this whole world of Catholic teachings and the living tradition of the Catholic Church in the modern world.” Hottinger said he was struck by the ability of the Catholic Church to speak on “the gravest of matters concerning humanity.” Catholic social teaching helped deepen his concern for a world “grounded in something larger than myself.”

“It wasn’t about me and my ideas,” he said. “This was about people being created in the image and likeness of God, and a calling of human society to protect human dignity.”

Hottinger married a Lutheran pastor after graduating from divinity school. The family moved to South Carolina in 1997. He was received into the Catholic Church at St. Joseph Church in Columbia that year, with Father Newman serving as his sponsor. The two had met in Ohio.

Since becoming Catholic, Hottinger has served as education director for South Carolina Citizens for Life and as a hospice chaplain in Columbia. He was also a lobbyist in the South Carolina General Assembly for Citizens for Life.

He kept in touch with his colleagues from his days in Ohio and national politics up until he became a Catholic.

“When I started working in right-to-life and pro-life causes, they disowned me,” he said. “It was like I had joined the enemy.”

Hottinger started work at St. Mary in September 2002, as assistant to the pastor for evangelization and pastoral services. “I was hired to focus on the evangelization of the people of St. Mary’s,” he said. “The Catholic Church has done an OK job on focusing on the religious education of children. Where we have really dropped the ball is on Catholic formation of adults and how they can become more active in our mission in the world.”

Part of that effort to date, has included bringing in nationally known speakers such as George Weigel and Paul Thigpen, and developing a comprehensive discipleship training program for adults.

But, as Hottinger helps steer St. Mary’s into the future, his past isn’t far behind.

“I’ve been blessed by the way God has been in all of those places, through both the good times and the bad times. I have a greater sense of peace about my life and my calling than I’ve ever had.”