Tim Pawlenty’s Pastor Problem Could Be Obama’s, Too

Tim Pawlenty officially announced his presidential campaign today. What a perfect time to look at his pastor, Leith Anderson, a man who could complicate the candidate’s crusade — and the president’s, too.

Tim Pawlenty's Pastor Problem Could Be Obama's, Too

Political candidates’ pastors and congregations invariably make a cameo during campaign season. The American public demands lawmakers explain their faith, and often times that explanation yields scandalous results. Who could forget Obama’s Jeremiah Wright, he of the ‘God damn America’ gaffe? Or that same election cycle’s revelation that Sarah Palin once attended the Wasilla Assembly of God, where conservatives “pray the gay away.”

As the 2012 election takes shape, we can expect plenty of religion-related controversy. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman already have the Mormon hurdle to surpass. And now, as Tim Pawlenty embarks on his official campaign, there’s another scandal lurking: the former Minnesota Governor’s association with Leith Anderson.

Anderson has presided over Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, since 1977. It was there that Anderson in 1987 married Tim Pawlenty to his wife, Mary.

The preacher man must have become quite popular, because from 2001 until 2003 he was president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a position he took again after the group in 2006 ousted Ted Haggard for hiring a male hooker and buying meth.

Considering Anderson’s big shot credentials, it’s no surprise to hear that he’s used his pulpit and position to fight social conservatism’s traditional battles against abortion and marriage equality. With regard to the latter, Anderson lent his name to 2009’s Manhattan Declaration, a right wing manifesto blasting same-sex relationships.

“The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize same-sex and multiple partner relationships is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture,” Anderson and his allies declared in that document.

But Anderson’s more ideologically flexible — or at least politically cooperative — than many of his socially conservative comrades: in addition to his official duties at Wooddale and the NAE, Anderson has also joined President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a bipartisan role that’s sure to rile up the Obama-hating Republicans Pawlenty so desperately wants to woo.

Anderson’s cooperation with the president isn’t the most muddled hiccup here, though. Pawlenty could easily explain away any superficial discontent by extolling the virtues of divergent opinions. Anderson and the NAE’s political positions, however, may be more problematic, like the fact that they “pray for the President,” even as many Republicans continue painting the commander-in-chief as a political interloper.

And then there’s the NAE’s lobbying for immigration reform.

Many religious groups are invoking moral obligations to justify their reform stances. The NAE is no different, calling the politically divisive issue a “fresh opportunity for the church.”

“Millions of immigrants also come from Christian backgrounds. These brothers and sisters in Christ are revitalizing churches across the country and are planting churches and evangelizing. Their presence is a blessing of God,” the NAE wrote in a 2009 memo in which they laid forth some arguments for reform, including family reunification.

[We ask] that the government recognize the central importance of the family in society by reconsidering the number and categories of visas available for family reunification, by dedicating more resources to reducing the backlog of cases in process, and by reevaluating the impact of deportation on families.

Such thinking flies in the face of rabid right-wingers who would like nothing more than to boot all illegals, regardless of circumstance.

Pawlenty hasn’t laid out his immigration policy as of yet, other than telling the Hispanic Leadership Network, “We need to start the discussion with the notion that the rule of law is a cornerstone tenet for our nation,” and that people who “wink and nod” at the law should be punished.

Now that he’s in the race, Pawlenty will have to more clearly delineate his stance, and he’ll have a hard time walking the line between pandering to the virulently anti-immigrant right and Anderson’s bipartisan politicking.

That said, Pawlenty can easily overcome this admittedly minor complication. He can, as mentioned above, boast about respecting different people’s perspectives. But whether Obama can shake off Anderson remains a different story.

Progressives and liberals are already incensed over the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an organization with decidedly unprogressive and unconstitutional policies, including the distribution of funds to groups that discriminate against LGBT Americans.

Writes Sarah Posner for ‘Conscience Magazine:’

In the two years since the OFBNP launch, church-state separation and civil liberties advocates, acting individually and through the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) have repeatedly pushed Obama to stop funding organizations with discriminatory hiring practices, as well as ending the practice known as direct funding, which permits taxpayer money to flow directly to houses of worship, rather than requiring them to establish a separate nonprofit entity.

An inflammation of attention surrounding the OFBNP and Anderson will shed an unflattering light on both Pawlenty and Obama, and only one of those men can easily navigate away from a scandal, while the other, Obama, may find himself sucked into an unholy conflict that threatens to split his base.