07.12.11

Pawlenty’s Pastor Problem

The moderate views of Pawlenty spiritual adviser Leith Anderson—shared by the 2012 GOP White House hopeful—could be a liability with evangelicals who prefer fire and brimstone from their presidential candidate, writes McKay Coppins.

For Tim Pawlenty’s campaign, it’s Hail Mary time. Hopefully the GOP pol remembers the prayer from his Catholic days.

With the Republican field beginning to settle and Pawlenty’s poll numbers still languishing in the low single-digits, the former Minnesota governor and 2012 hopeful enjoyed a brief moment of positive buzz last week when it was announced that Sarah Huckabee—yes that Huckabee, Mike’s daughter—would join his campaign in Iowa, presumably to help promote him to the evangelical community. The hire came after Pawlenty’s months-long campaign to court local churchgoers fell flat, leaving room for right-wing firebrand Michele Bachmann, a fellow evangelical, to jump in the race. With Bachmann now surging, Pawlenty, who converted from Catholicism while dating his eventual wife, Mary, is making a last-ditch grab for the support of his co-religionists.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a political reporter for leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, says Pawlenty has failed to capture the imaginations of the Christian right because he lacks a certain, well, evangelical fervor. “You just can’t see Tim Pawlenty holding a tent revival,” she says. And as right-wing Christians gear up to try to defeat a well-defined—if somewhat exaggerated—foe in President Obama, many want a combative hero they can rally around, not just tolerate.

The problem: Pawlenty comes off like a Good Samaritan at a time when the religious right wants fire and brimstone.

Of course, the political perils of Pawlenty’s niceness have been well-documented. But through all the punditry and speculation, little attention has been paid to the man who has spent the past 20 years teaching the candidate how to be so nice: his longtime minister, the Rev. Leith Anderson.

“The first time I heard him speak, I was inspired by his style and persuaded by his temperament, intellect, and wisdom,” Pawlenty writes of Anderson in his autobiography, Courage to Stand. “From day one, I felt I was truly learning from him, and I benefited from his sermons.”

Like many modern evangelicals, Pawlenty was converted not just by a set of Biblical teachings, but by a charismatic personality with whom he felt a meaningful connection. “He drew me in,” Pawlenty wrote, “to the point where if I missed his message any given week, often I’d get a tape of it and listen to it later.”

Anderson, who leads a congregation of 5,000 at Minnesota’s Wooddale Church, is a bigwig in evangelical circles, having twice served as president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). He was tapped to take the position a second time in 2006 when Ted Haggard, the former president, was caught hiring a male prostitute and buying crystal meth. “I’m guessing Leith Anderson was chosen to replace [Haggard] because he was seen as a safe leader,” Bailey says. “He’s not someone who’s going to lead a march to Washington; he kind of does his work behind the scenes, building consensus.”

If that sounds like it could double as a description of Pawlenty, that’s because it could, says Bailey. “They both have a very calming, not a very combative style,” she says. “They hold beliefs but they don’t like to cram them down everyone’s throats; they don’t feel comfortable attacking other people.”

There’s no question Anderson has rubbed off on Pawlenty, says Doug Pagitt, a pastor in Minneapolis who knows both men. “If you listen to them talk, they even talk in the same cadences,” he says. “They have the same mannerisms; they’re very similar communicators… I think they’re very temperamentally similar.”

Trouble is, in this race the nice guys run a serious risk of finishing last.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Anderson, who recently announced he will retire from preaching at the end of the year, says he will continue a pastoral (but not political) relationship with Pawlenty. He welcomes the comparisons to his congregant, but is reluctant to take all the credit. “Governor Pawlenty comes across as a nice guy because he is a nice guy,” says Anderson, adding, “I prefer to think that my teaching the Bible influences many for good. It’s not me, it’s the Bible.”

Trouble is, in this race the nice guys run a serious risk of finishing last. What’s more, Pawlenty’s relationship with Anderson could actually harm his chances at winning over the religious right. The powerful minister’s unspoken support has likely endeared the candidate to the evangelical elite: Pawlenty recently topped an NAE survey of church leaders who were asked to identify their preferred candidate. But at the grassroots level, where it actually counts, many conservative Christians view Anderson with a strong dose of suspicion.

Mingling With Moderates

Anderson took the helm of Wooddale in 1977, the same year evangelicals carried Jimmy Carter into the White House. For grassroots Christian voters, Carter’s election provided the first taste of political influence. It would soon be followed by a sharp right turn, and the erection of a vast political apparatus designed to promote a socially conservative agenda. In coming years, this environment would give rise to crusading Christian superstars like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who thrived on politicizing the pulpit.

Anderson, meanwhile, bucked the trend, sticking to nonpartisan preaching. He boasts that in three decades of leading church services, he never once delivered a political sermon.

“It really comes to a greater question: what is the purpose of the church?” Anderson says. “I believe the purpose of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. So, we’re not mostly or even much about politics.”

That’s not to say he ignores the subject altogether. In his capacity as president of the nonpartisan NAE, Anderson is frequently blasted by his conservative co-religionists for taking left-of-center stances. He has spoken out against Arizona’s immigration crackdown, championed pro-environment “creation care,” and signed an appeal to lawmakers to protect government welfare programs from budget cuts.  (The last move—which came last April in the midst of the blistering national debate over the federal deficit—led conservative evangelical minister Eric Barger to proclaim on his blog, “Leith Anderson fiddles with Marxists as the church burns.”)

Perhaps most troubling to the religious right, Anderson led the NAE to issue a press release in 2010 titled, “Evangelicals Concur with Obama on Multiple Issues.” Anderson’s conciliatory approach to politics earned him a spot on the White House’s interfaith advisory council, but it has also angered Christian culture warriors who believe that one of their most prominent spokesmen is allowing his attention to drift from the more important social issues.

“If Leith Anderson was in an abortion clinic about to have his skull punctured with scissors so the abortionist could suck out his brains and then hurl him into a trash can, I wonder how much support he would have for the president?” right-wing evangelical blogger Ingrid Schlueter wrote last year. “Without the right to life, every other issue is meaningless.”

Anderson, who opposes abortion, seems to shrug off such vitriol, saying simply, “We want a relationship with the president and his administration, regardless of party or platform.”

Pagitt, who served at Wooddale for 12 years before leaving to start his own church, says this style is a reflection of Anderson’s pragmatic approach to faith.

“I don’t think he sees evangelicalism as the only true faith, or even the best expression of Christianity,” says Pagitt. “But this is the tribe he comes from and he wants to represent it well. That’s pretty unusual for someone in a somewhat prominent role... he says leadership is about doing the right thing at the right moment for your constituency.”

Crusader or Consensus-Builder?

According to a revealing 2008 article in Christianity Today, Pawlenty’s native Twin Cities have long served as an incubator for evangelical thought, giving rise to multiple mega-churches that regularly clash over politics and theology.  The tensions were put on full display in 2007, when a major bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and wounding 145. The political fallout of the tragedy was predictably intense, but the rhetorical firestorm it unleashed within the local Christian community was surprisingly severe.

Within hours of the accident—as victims still lay in the ICU—fiery Baptist minister John Piper, who ran a popular mega-church in the area, took to his blog to declare that, “God could have held up that bridge with one hand” if He’d wanted to. Piper then proceeded to recount a bedtime chat he’d just had with his 11-year-old daughter during which they mused that God must have let the bridge fall so that “all the people of Minneapolis would fear him.”  Piper’s assertion, while controversial, represented a significant wing of evangelical belief.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Pagitt used a podcast interview to call Piper’s guidance “one of the most disturbed sorts of things a parent could say to a kid.” Pagitt, who subscribes to a more flexible “open theism,” concluded: “Man, there is so much work to do to try to pull many religious people out of the dark ages.”

The following Sunday, after a week’s worth of theological warfare being waged by Minnesota’s ministers, Anderson stood at the pulpit of Wooddale Church and offered a diplomatic sermon designed to cool tempers. Rather than using the implications of the accident to advance his own brand of Christianity, he offered comfort. “God does not prevent every calamity from coming our way,” he told his congregation. “But He is there with amazing mercy and grace.”

In a Christian landscape with so many diverse options, Pawlenty has eschewed the crusaders in favor of the consensus-builder. The only question now is whether evangelical voters are ready to make the same choice at the ballot box.