The Rev. Leith Anderson, former pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, steps down next week as president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Thirteen years at its helm, he departs reiterating a key message he’s driven home over the years, namely that evangelicals should not be defined by the white, politically active evangelicals making headlines.
While many Americans associate evangelicals with the high profile politics of leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Rev. Franklin Graham, the NAE has argued that evangelicals must be defined by theology and faith, Anderson said.
It’s a position that has frustrated some of the faithful on both sides of the political spectrum, and relieved others.
“I don’t want us to be known for politics,” said Anderson, who served as pastor to former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “I want us defined by who evangelicals are, have been, and will be.”
It’s a tough line to walk for the NAE, which represents millions of adherents from about 45,000 churches and institutions from 40 denominations. The NAE’s mission is to support and grow its members through training, education, opportunities and public policy direction. But with headquarters in Washington, D.C., it has a front-row seat to the political stage.
The repercussions for evangelicals stepping onto that stage became apparent this month when the editor of the magazine Christianity Today, founded by the Rev. Billy Graham in the 1950s, published an editorial urging that President Donald Trump be removed from office. The editorial was swiftly criticized by high-profile evangelical leaders, who signed a letter to the publication condemning it. Nearly 200 others have joined in.
“Evangelicals may all share the same faith, but we don’t all share the same politics,” Anderson said.
As senior pastor at Wooddale Church from 1977 until 2011, he gained a national profile as Pawlenty’s pastor. He was elected NAE president in 2006 after its previous president — the Rev. Ted Haggard — became embroiled in a sex and drug scandal.
Anderson is credited with steering the association out of the turbulent waters.
Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, the association of Minnesota’s evangelical community, is on the NAE’s board of directors.
“When Leith became the NAE president in 2006, he rescued the organization from near collapse,” Nelson said. “The NAE wouldn’t have the bright future that it does today without Leith’s focused and patient leadership. He transformed the NAE into a movement of evangelicals that uses its influence for good — not for institutional power, or political gain, but for the good of people — especially the poor and the vulnerable and the immigrant and the persecuted.”
That is precisely how Anderson wants his legacy remembered. During his tenure, the NAE has actively supported immigration reform, increased refugee resettlement, prison reform, efforts to halt human trafficking, and public policies helping the poor and disadvantaged.
It also embraces the core evangelical priorities of opposing abortion and marriage equality and protecting “religious liberty.”
Anderson is considered a pragmatist who was a spiritual mentor to Pawlenty, saying a prayer at his inauguration, and was a member of President Barack Obama’s advisory council of faith-based partnerships.
The NAE president has long argued that evangelicals are not a monolith. LifeWay Research of Nashville, in a joint project with the NAE, found that 44% of blacks, 30% of Hispanics and 29% of whites can be defined as evangelical, Anderson said.
Theologically, that means they embrace its core tenets, such as the inerrancy of the Bible, a religious conversion experience and a mandate to spread God’s word.
Over the years, Anderson and his wife, Charleen, have kept their home in the Twin Cities, where they returned for Christmas. Over coffee at an Edina restaurant, he said he’s still debating his next steps.
“I was going to take a gap year, but that’s not going to happen,” he joked.
Plans for next year include guest lectures at universities and other institutions. Anderson will also remain on the board of directors of several faith-based organizations, such as World Vision International, where he will assume the founder’s chair.
The NAE’s incoming president, the Rev. Walter Kim, will take the helm Jan. 1. Kim is a Presbyterian pastor in Charlottesville, Va., an NAE board member, and a scholar of theology and race.
Anderson said he remains enthusiastic about the evangelical movement. While mainline Protestant Christianity is declining in the United States, research indicates that “intense faiths” have a greater hold on the faithful, he said.
He also noted that evangelicalism is now a global church and is continuing to grow.
“I’m optimistic,” Anderson said. “Evangelicals have a long tradition of entrepreneurship and adaptability.”