Pastor problems have been a hot topic this election year. They aren’t new to Minnesota. Per usual, we’re ahead of the curve: we had Mac Hammond and Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2006. On the national stage, Barack Obama and John McCain have both had pastor problems with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Pastor John Hagee, respectively.
In a year that has brought much speculation about Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty becoming a vice presidential candidate, I am here to declare to any nosy national media that he doesn’t have a “pastor problem.”
This became relevant last week when it was clear that some talking points about Pawlenty’s evangelical credibility had made their way onto the talking-head circuit. The most notable comments came from Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota who is now a top GOP power broker. Weber detailed Pawlenty’s “God cred” on MSNBC last week.
The talking points were likely distributed in reaction to the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins’ comments last Wednesday in a “Today” show story by Andrea Mitchell. Perkins said that Pawlenty “has the same weakness as John McCain when it comes to issues like the environment… he’s been very big on global warming, which is still something that is viewed with a lot of suspicion skepticism among social conservatives on issues.”
In fact, Pawlenty’s pastor may be one of the governor’s biggest assets as McCain goes about final deliberations in the selection of a running mate. Pawlenty’s pastor (and mine) is the Rev. Leith Anderson of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie.
Pastor’s political clout
Anderson is the head of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), whose tagline is “cooperation without compromise.” That tagline applies to its relatively nonpartisan approach to policy and public issues. That doesn’t take away from its leadership and significant influence on traditional “social” issues that the Republicans have adopted over the years. The group also represents the largest set of evangelical pastors in the country.
That gives Anderson political clout, and Pawlenty should have a solid “witness” with evangelicals across the country if McCain were to tap him to be his running mate.
Anderson took over the NAE after the Haggard implosion of gay prostitute and drug allegations in 2006. (Anderson was the president of NAE before Haggard.) That is where the similarities between Anderson and Haggard end.
From personal experience, as an agnostic attending church with my wife, I can tell you Anderson is anything but the stereotypical evangelical preacher that the media and some Democrats would like to paint him. Anderson never spoke from the pulpit about the gay marriage debate in Minnesota or anywhere else. He also:
• Doesn’t allow or lead political dialogue or candidate endorsements from the church.
• Doesn’t distribute Christian Coalition or other Christian-focused voter’s guides during an election year.
• Doesn’t speak of Pawlenty or have him speak during regular church services.
A Baptist who’s ‘classic Lutheran’
Anderson could be characterized as a “classic Lutheran” — Minnesota minister, low-key, dry-sense of humor and completely approachable. He doesn’t tout his national prominence nor does he preach fire and brimstone. I have often compared his sermons to a college philosophy class.
There are times when I am not completely in agreement and I am more than slightly inclined to raise my hand and debate the teacher, but this is Minnesota and Anderson is classically understated. He’s also not a Lutheran, but a Baptist.
Anderson doesn’t invoke race or class-warfare when preaching, as does Wright. He doesn’t preach the hate-toned language on issues of homosexuality or abortion like Haggard and Hagee do. And despite his success, he hasn’t preached the prosperity gospel like Hammond or grown his church into a giga-church like Joel Osteen.
Instead he focuses on relating the Bible to everyday life in simplistic, down-to-earth and what seem to be attainable ways to be a Christian. Pawlenty didn’t grow up with Anderson, but his wife, Mary, did. That explains the 40-plus minute commute that the Pawlentys make weekly.
It also could explain why Pawlenty doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, like some who have gone before him, and therefore why he needs more credibility with evangelicals. Be ready for “evangelical” to be a key talking point for Pawlenty on the national stage, and know that the pastor they are talking about isn’t the type that the left fears or journalists have a heyday with.
And one last thing that the national press (and right-wing-Christian zealots) might want to know: Pawlenty voted in 1996 for the “equal rights law for homosexuals in Minnesota.” That might be the biggest issue Pawlenty will have to explain to the GOP’s evangelical base.