Nick Coleman: Pawlenty the pious: God runs the show

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2010 - 12:55 PM

And he's just God's servant on Earth, except for that stuff about the poor.

Tim Pawlenty outlined the principles that he said should guide conservatives as they campaign to win back control of Washington when he spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 19. "God's in charge, God is in charge," he said as he auditioned for a presidential bid by throwing red meat to the right wing.

It wasn't the governor's first outing as a preacher: Last fall, speaking to a conservative gathering, he quoted an Old Testament passage warning the people to turn from their wicked ways. (The crowd recited the passage aloud with him.) The passage (2 Chronicles 7:14) is popular with "restoration" Christians who believe Christians must take control to bring about God's kingdom on earth.

Pawlenty is a devout man. But his ambitions are causing him to play with fire with these kinds of coded political/theological shout-outs. He isn't the only one who wants God to rule.

Another fellow who proclaimed it was Yusuf Muhammad Mubarak al-Jebairy al-Shehri, an Al-Qaida member and ex-detainee at Guantanamo. He was wearing a dress and a suicide bomb vest when he died in a recent shootout in Saudi Arabia. In his "martyr's will," he told Muslims to wage Jihad and that "Allah is in control."

No, Tim Pawlenty is not waging holy war. But he is employing some of its rhetoric as he tries to convince the right's mujahideen that he is sufficiently steeped in the conservative faith to do whatever it takes. And he will: The night before he said God is in charge, he threw a long-distance thunderbolt from his Washington hotel, vetoing a bill restoring health care for the poorest and sickest Minnesotans.

"The faith community is not going to let people die because of a budget deficit," says Brian Rusche, executive director of the Minnesota Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, an umbrella group of religious leaders trying to overturn Pawlenty's veto. "Over and over and over again, God reminds us to take care of the poor."

So, whose God does Pawlenty believe is in charge? Apparently not the God the nuns taught me about, or the one my kids learn about in Sunday School. Which is why the separation of church and state, now under assault, evolved in law and practice. It is dangerous when ambitious politicians say they will govern with their God in charge.

Pawlenty's pious politicking is drawing criticism from afar:

"There is something new, something more intolerant, something truly ugly in the works," Dan Kennedy wrote in the Guardian, a British newspaper. "If you don't believe me, let's start with Tim Pawlenty, unassuming governor of Minnesota in his day job, fire-breathing Christian warrior and aspiring presidential candidate in his spare time."

And in an article headlined "God's Running Mate in 2012?", Canadian journalist Neil Macdonald wrote that he hadn't heard any politician claim "quite so bluntly" that God was in charge "since my assignments in Iran a decade ago."

But Pawlenty's claim to divine control -- maybe we need a king, not a president -- has drawn little attention in this country. Too bad. Those who believe God is in control but that government doesn't have to do anything remind me of an old sermon story:

A man caught in a flood is praying to God when a neighbor passes by in a boat and asks him to get in. "No," he says, "God will save me." He waves off a second boat and a helicopter that hovers overhead and drops a rope: "No, God will save me." In the end, he drowns and, reaching heaven, angrily asks why God didn't help him.

"I didn't help you?" God says. "I sent you two boats and a helicopter!"

"We're charged by God to do God's work," says Prof. Bernard Brady, chair of the Theology Department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, who has been discussing Pawlenty's statement with his students in a class on Catholic social thought.

"You don't just say 'It's God's will' and leave it at that. There's a middle ground that requires human action. 'God is in charge' could be a statement of great faith. Or it could be a shirking of responsibility. It's hard to reconcile God in charge with a veto of health care for the poor. Maybe [Pawlenty] sees himself as the one in charge."

Maybe when a candidate tells us God is in charge, the wisest thing to do is simply to say, "Thanks for the warning."

"Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god," said Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers who Pawlenty says believed God was in control. "If it's good enough for the Founding Fathers of this country, it's good enough for me," Pawlenty said last Sunday on "Meet the Press."

Really? I don't think his claim is true. But even if it were, well, slavery was "good enough" for the Founding Fathers, too. Would President Pawlenty bring back slavery? Maybe it's time to ask.

Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at

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