T-Paw Doesn’t Have a Pastor Problem, He Has a Pawlenty Problem

At the Daily Beast, McKay Coppins tackles a tough assignment: figuring out whether religion plays a role in why Tim Pawlenty is such a dull candidate.

Coppins says Pawlenty has a pastor problem: that his “spiritual advisor,” National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson (and soon to be retired pastor of Wooddale Church) is too “moderate,” and doesn’t display the “fire and brimstone” that GOP base voters want.


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.”

Pawlenty’s problem with conservative evangelical voters, though, isn’t because of Anderson, but because of Pawlenty. Remember how Conor Friedersdorf retitled Pawlenty’s memoir “Well Adjusted Man From Loving Family Is Hardworking, Unlikely To Do Anything Terribly Objectionable, And Possessed Of More Wisdom Than Average”? That precisely captures Pawlenty’s problem, one that wasn’t caused by Leith Anderson.

Evangelical voters are just like other voters: they look at the candidate. They don’t care about the candidate’s pastor, they care about the candidate (unless, of course, that candidate is Barack Obama). Ted Haggard, who led the NAE before his fall from grace, was much more in the celebrity mold than Anderson, and might have turned heads if he had (pre-Mike Jones) been pastor to an aspiring president, but still, it is hardly decisive.

Coppins notes, “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, he concludes, “at the grassroots level, where it actually counts, many conservative Christians view Anderson with a strong dose of suspicion.” He cites a few blogger and Christian talk radio show types who think that Anderson is cavorting with the enemy for supporting “creation care” and so forth. But at the same time a lot of “elites” were also against the NAE’s push to address global warming, and helped to push out Rich Cizik after he expressed support for civil unions. But to most rank and file evangelicals, Anderson (and even the NAE) is probably a non-entity. And, incidentally, so is Pawlenty, it seems, so far at least. But that’s not because Anderson’s boringness rubbed off on Pawlenty, or that evangelical voters say, “hey, Pawlenty’s pastor is that socialist NAE president.” It’s that Pawlenty is just not a particularly inspiring candidate.

Coppins opines that evangelical voters are looking for “fire and brimstone,” not Pawlenty’s version of Minnesota nice. But that’s a far too narrow lens through which to view their desires. Yes, Rick Perry’s prayer fest is focused on averting God’s judgment for America’s supposed sins, but if you look at the rise of Michele Bachmann, she appears to be scoring points with voters by embracing a Christian Americanism that focuses less on eternal damnation, and more on a mythology about what it means to be a “real” American and a “real” Christian. And they probably don’t even know who her pastor is.