Pawlenty’s pastor avoids politics in the pulpit

June 30, 2011

When GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty goes to church, he knows
he'll hear a 27-minute sermon—never longer, never shorter. But whether
he'll hear a biblical endorsement of the Republican platform is far less
certain.

Pawlenty gets his spiritual guidance from Leith
Anderson, senior pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Min­nesota,
and president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Anderson says
he toes no partisan line, though some hardline Republicans might
question some past NAE positions if Paw­lenty were to emerge as a GOP
contender.

Anderson said before the July 4 weekend that he will
retire as senior pastor of the megachurch by December, staying on as
minister-at-large. Anderson said his decision was unrelated to the
Pawlenty campaign and that he did not foresee any role with the
Republican primary candidate.

"I've never preached a political
sermon that says you ought to vote for this party or that candidate, or
that we should be taking specific stands on certain legislation," said
Anderson, who's been at Wooddale since 1977.

Anderson, 66, had
already served twice as interim NAE president but became president in
2007, a year after his predecessor, Ted Haggard, resigned in the wake of
a gay sex and drug scandal. Around the same time, evangelicals were
openly asking whether they'd become too closely aligned with Republican
politics and lost their moral authority.

"When a church embraces a
political party and becomes politicized, they lose their prophetic
voice," said Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent of the Wesleyan
Church, which belongs to the NAE. "There's an enormous trust that people
have with [Anderson], and that allows him to lead."

President
Obama appointed Anderson to his faith-based advisory council, and on any
given Sunday, Anderson's 5,000-member flock includes Fortune 500 CEOs,
major league coaches and other Twin Cities leaders.

"I'm not the
only one Leith Anderson has inspired; great leaders have many
followers," Pawlenty wrote in his 2010 autobiography, Courage to Stand. "But he'd be the first to underscore that his mission is not about him; it's about drawing others to Jesus."

Anderson
isn't shy about discerning a political agenda in scripture. When he
reads in Psalms, "I knit you together in your mother's womb," he sees a
strong antiabortion message. He also opposes same-sex marriage on
biblical grounds.

Yet on other issues—particularly immigration and
the environment—Anderson parts with many social conservatives. And that
has some conservatives wondering if Anderson's moderate streak could be
a political liability for Pawlenty.

When former NAE lobbyist
Richard Cizik angered social conservatives by calling for action on
climate change, Anderson stood by him and signed a 2006 statement,
"Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action."

Anderson
continues to press the issue as a matter of justice for the poor in the
developing world, working behind the scenes to craft an official NAE
statement on climate change. "He was very accepting of what people had
to say" when a creation care working group met in March, Lyon said. "But
he was immediately coming back with: 'How does scripture speak to this?
What are we called to say?'"

But Erick Erickson, editor of the
influential conservative blog Redstate, said "there is a real concern"
among conservative evangelicals about Anderson's 25-year influence on
Pawlenty. "Some of Pawlenty's critics will attempt to capitalize on some
of Leith Anderson's statements and stands, including his position on
global warming," Erickson said in an e-mail.

Earlier this year, when Erickson tweeted that "Pawlenty's preacher is going to cause him some problems" on the environment, Salon likened Anderson to Jeremiah Wright, the outspoken Chicago pastor who nearly derailed President Obama's 2008 campaign.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune
leaped to Anderson's defense. "Paw­lenty's presidential ambitions may
or may not have a prayer," the paper said, "but that should not be
because of his pastor."

Whatever the implications for presidential
politics, observers say, Ander­son's moderate approach can help
evangelicals rally bipartisan support on a number of issues, from human
trafficking to religious freedom.

"No one knows what the
evangelical position is on AIDS or global warming," said David Woodard, a
Clemson Univer­sity political scientist and a Republican consultant.
"Christianity speaks to the whole of life . . . and this broad approach
gives [the NAE] a chance to talk to groups that they wouldn't normally
be talking to."

After running a large megachurch and planting nine
churches around the Twin Cities—including one at the Mall of
America—Anderson does not tolerate sloppiness. Soon after taking the
helm at NAE, Anderson found the quality of reports from several NAE
committees and commissions to be an "embarrassment," according to George
Brushaber, retired president of Bethel University and a 30-year member
of the NAE board.

Those deemed to be doing subpar work were
swiftly terminated. As Ander­son leads, the NAE seems to follow. Five
years ago, the association was notably mum on immigration reform. But
Anderson, a trained sociologist, sees Hispanics playing a prominent role
in the future of evangelicalism, and the NAE now supports comprehensive
immigration reform.

"I was with him at a large gathering of
10,000 Hispanic evangelicals in Orlan­do," Brushaber said. "Leith was
just forging relationships, friendships and partnerships. . . . That
just didn't happen in the old days of NAE. All of a sudden, the
membership of NAE understands how significant is the Hispanic
evangelical population in the United States."
—RNS