Tim Pawlenty, Bad Fundamentalist

After producing a truly epic book advertisement, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty sat down for an interview with Christianity Today. Two of his answers early in the interview jumped out at me:

Your book encourages Christians to be involved in public issues. At what point might Christians rely too much on political solutions to current problems?

I started with the perspective of someone who says that faith is separate from public law and public service; it really isn’t. We have, as a country, a founding perspective that we’re founded under God; our founding documents reference and acknowledge God, and acknowledge that our rights and privileges come from our Creator.

For those who have an interest in or passion about an issue, being involved in the political process is important. It isn’t for everybody; there are other ways to serve, including the family, neighborhood, faith-based organizations, charitable organizations, and also reaching out and helping somebody on a one-on-one basis.

Recently, Alabama governor Robert Bentley spoke at a Baptist church about accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior, and then said, “I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister and I want to be your brother.” How does someone balance being evangelistic while also having the obligation of a governor representing a religiously diverse state?

I’m not familiar with the Alabama situation, so I can’t comment on it. Beyond that, when I go into the public square and speak about faith matters, first of all, I try to not inject my own personal editorial comments. If I make a faith-related comment, I usually quote from the Bible, often from the Old Testament. I remind people that our country is founded under God, and the founders thought that was an important perspective. I watch my tone so I don’t get judgmental or angry about issues. I try to express myself in ways that are measured and appropriate and hopefully civil and positive. Lastly, I try not to say that God is on my side, but I strive to be on God’s side.

There is a parallelism in Pawlenty’s logic here. First, he argues that our founders and our founding documents show that our country was “founded under God,” though he never explains what that phrase means or what its repercussions are; nor does he even discuss who this God we’re founded under is. But that’s beside the point. He also incorrectly implies that God or a Creator is mentioned in our Constitution when only “Nature’s God” is mentioned, and then only in the Declaration of Independence. Yet that’s also beside the point.

The point is that, for Pawlenty, there is evidential proof of America’s founding “under God” in the Founders and their documents. Then, he makes the point that when he speaks in public about matters of faith he tries “not to inject my own personal editorial comments.” Rather, he quotes from the Bible. Pawlenty’s use of scripture and his use of the Founders share a similar precision. In both cases he believes he is not injecting his own editorial comments, but instead, that he is relating what is plainly obvious. Just read the founders. Just read the documents. Just read the Bible. It’s all there, clear as day.

Pawlenty’s use of the Founders and the Bible flows straight out of the Christian Fundamentalist tradition of the early twentieth century—a tradition in which his evangelical megachurch, Wooddale Church, has roots. In their series of articles known as The Fundamentals, the early Fundamentalist thinkers argued that the Bible was God’s living word. This meant that there was no need for literary criticism or historical interpretation because the Holy Spirit of God spoke truth through the scriptures themselves.

Furthermore, the Fundamentalists also held to Scottish Common Sense philosphy, a tradition that argued that facts were readily accessible to every person through common sense. To understand the Bible, all you needed to do was read it—no need to inject your own personal editorial comments. Pawlenty applies similar logic to the Founders. There’s no need for historical interpretation or research into what they might have meant by “God,” “religion,” or “Creator.” We know what they meant. It’s common sense. Just read it.

The early Fundamentalists may have believed that the Bible could be interpreted through common sense, but that did not make their interpretations simple. One look at any dispensationionalist chart of the End Times proves that. The Bible could be understood with common sense but it was still hard work and the interpretations were complex. That’s what Pawlenty misses. He’s a bad Fundamentalist. Even if, like Fundamentalists, we only apply common sense philosophy to the Founders and their documents, our answers about how they saw God functioning in the new republic would be as complex as any Fundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Daniel. Fundamentalists valued precision and complexity. Pawlenty only gives vague notions of a “founding under God.”