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Retiring NAE Head Leith Anderson on Evangelicals, Politics, Controversy

Leith Anderson is a fan of the word “evangelical” and the Christians who claim that name, he said in a recent interview with Religion News Service But he believes the term may have outlived its usefulness in a polarized country where evangelical has often become a synonym for conservative Republican.

“I like the word ‘evangelical.’ I would like it to stand for what I think it has always stood for,” the retiring president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) told RNS Nov. 19. “But if people want to abandon the term, let them abandon the term. That’s really not what matters. What really matters is their faith and their practice.” 

Anderson, who has been NAE president since 2006, has worked to help people understand the diversity of what and who evangelicals are. He’s done so in the face of public polls showing that “white evangelicals” are among the most ardent supporters of President Donald Trump and his policies. See related Baptist Press reports on studies by the NAE and LifeWay Research here and here.

The longtime pastor wants evangelicals to be defined by their faith — not their politicshe told RNS. 

“I want the standard to be what the Bible teaches, not what the polls report,” he said.

Anderson is part of a long history — 75 years as of 2018 — in which the evangelical organization has sought to be a centrist voice between more liberal and more fundamentalist Protestants. The organization currently has 40 member denominations along with a wide array of member organizations, from Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church to the missions network Missio Nexus.  

But you won’t find the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, listed among them. 

At the SBC’s 2016 annual meetingformer executive director of LifeWay Research Ed Stetzer made a motion for the SBC Executive Committee to study the possibility of affiliating with the NAE and to report its findings at the 2017 meeting in Phoenix, Baptist Press reportedIn response to a motion referred from the 2016 meeting, the EC declined to recommend that the SBC affiliate with the NAE. They noted, Baptist Press reported, the decision of whether to “affiliate with a non-Southern Baptist organization” is best left to “those churches so inclined.” 

During his tenure as president, Anderson, 75, has continued to press for more diversity in the NAE, which has been a long-term concern for the organization. Billy Graham acknowledged the need for greater attention to racial justice in a 1960s speech at an annual NAE meeting, and three decades later then-NAE President Donald Argue said the membership was “too old, too male, and too white.”

In October, with Anderson’s encouragement, the NAE board chose Rev. Walter Kim, an Asian American theologian, to succeed Anderson as president on Jan. 1. John Jenkins, the African American leader of a Maryland megachurch, and former Wesleyan Church General Superintendent Jo Anne Lyon will start as chair and vice chair, respectively, on March 5. 

Kim, an NAE board member since 2013, said Anderson has also helped the organization determine what it can say jointly about issues such as immigration reform and creation care by “being able to figure out what is the central shared biblical concern and to focus in on that and to develop a consensus.”  

But Anderson has not been able to escape criticism and challenges along the way.  

Anderson acknowledged that the NAE lost a few denominational members when it took its stance on immigration. And during Anderson’s tenure, a group of non-NAE members urged the board to ask Richard Cizik, who was NAE’s vice president of governmental affairs at the time, to tone down his environmental activism or resign. 

Eventually, Cizik stepped down after stating his support for civil unions in an NPR interview, RNS reported.  

The NAE also drew criticism for receiving $1 million from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unmarried Pregnancy, an organization known for promoting contraception for the unmarried, Baptist Press reported. 

Anderson acknowledged the association’s involvement with the National Campaign, BP reported, but also cited a 2010 NAE board resolution which says, “The Church is understandably reluctant to recommend contraception for unmarried sexual partners, given that it cannot condone extramarital sex. However, it is even more tragic when unmarried individuals compound one sin by conceiving and then destroying the precious gift of life.” 

Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of WORLD Magazine, broke the news in 2012 and wrote several articles regarding the controversy.  Olasky wrote, “It’s hard to imagine two stranger organizational bedfellows” than the NAE and the National Campaign. 

Anderson has collaborated with a variety of groups who share common causes with the NAE. That includes serving on then-President Barack Obama’s advisory council on faith-based programs. 

“The primary emphasis of that advisory council was human trafficking,” Anderson told RNS of the group that included representatives of Jewish and Mormon faiths as well as the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Churches. “We all care about stopping human trafficking.”

Anderson’s aversion to taking sides on political issues dates back to his time as pastor of the
5,000-member Wooddale Church outside Minneapolis. He led that congregation for 35 years
before retiring in 2011. Some of his time in the pastorate overlapped with his work as NAE president. 

As pastor of Wooddale, a church affiliated with the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, Anderson helped start nine other churches of various denominations. He and his wife, Charleen, now attend one of those churchesTimberwood Church, which was founded in 2003 after the couple bought a cabin in north central Minnesota and met their next-door neighbors. 

As he looks toward retirement, Anderson plans to lecture and continue serving on boards of evangelical groups such as the relief organization World Vision and the mentoring ministry Navigators. 

Religion News Service contributed to this article.