Leith Anderson is one of the most influential evangelical leaders in America, and yet he has been all but silent about President Donald Trump’s reshaping of American evangelicalism. Anderson has held basically every prominent job available to Christian pastors—leading an influential megachurch, teaching, writing books, serving in an advisory role in the Obama administration. Above all, he is an institutions guy: He is about to finish his second stint as the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, or NAE, which is among the largest evangelical organizations in the United States, claiming to speak for millions of Americans in more than 45,000 churches spanning 40 denominations. In part because of this role, Anderson has been doggedly committed to promoting unity among Christians. Nearly every article about his NAE tenure points out that he won’t comment on political issues, and he’s rarely quoted or interviewed on cable news.
Especially under Trump, public depictions of evangelicalism have tended to be binary, but lopsided: Pastors such as Robert Jeffress—the Trump-supporting pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, who frequently appears on Fox News—have come to stand in for all conservative evangelicals, while profile after profile examines outspokenly progressive evangelical leaders who don’t necessarily have large constituencies. Anderson, 75, is part of a sizable group of evangelical leaders who largely get overlooked, in part because they have chosen a path of silence in politically tumultuous times.
American evangelicalism is vast and diverse. Anderson certainly doesn’t speak for all evangelicals and would never claim to, but he is a decent stand-in for what you might call evangelicalism’s silent majority: those who may not see political activism as central to their religious identity, or those who might tend to vote Republican but describe themselves more as church people than party people. Some evangelical leaders who have chosen to stay out of politics in the past have felt called to speak up about what they see as Trump’s moral shortcomings: The editor in chief of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, recently published a viral editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, which resulted in a few angry tweets from the president himself.
I recently sat down with Anderson in New York City. (He and his wife, Charleen, live in Minnesota, and make an annual Christmastime pilgrimage to the city to celebrate their long-ago engagement there.) Anderson is retiring from his post at the NAE at the end of the year. We talked before the Christianity Today editorial came out, and when I followed up to see whether he had anything to add, his comment was true to form: studiously neutral and above the fray. “Evangelicals may all share the same faith,” he said, “but we don’t all share the same politics.”
Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: I think people like you have ceded the ground to people like Robert Jeffress. Evangelicalism, in the mind of the public, is very much tilted toward people who are quite politically conservative. Especially in the past few years, more moderate or nonpolitical perspectives like your own have receded into the background. Does that trouble you at all?
Leith Anderson: It does—in the sense that, to me, evangelicalism is about faith. It’s not about politics. It’s a historic religious movement. And that’s not a popular message, in the midst of polarized politics.
I distinguish between politics and government. I was on President Obama’s advisory council. That was a government function, not a political one. If I were asked to pray at a government event, like a White House Easter breakfast, I would say yes to that. But when I was asked to pray at political conventions, I declined.
Green: Let me push you on that. The NAE is not necessarily a political organization, but politics has certainly been part of its history. George W. Bush spoke to the NAE during his 2004 reelection campaign and said the organization was “doing God’s work.” Ronald Reagan gave his famous 1983 “Evil Empire” speech to the NAE.
Anderson: I was six feet away from him.
Green: Did it not seem clear then that evangelicalism was becoming more of a political movement, or at least that it was being perceived that way?
Anderson: To my knowledge, I’ve never preached a sermon that most people would consider to be political. Actually, I'm not sure if I’ve ever heard a sermon talk much about politics.
I feel a pressure to portray evangelicals in terms of faith and beliefs. There’s something like 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about the poor and the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry. To me, that transcends politics. That’s what we believe, and that’s what we’ve got to do.
Or immigrants. With all the teachings in the Bible about the way you treat the stranger and the immigrant, have we taken strong positions on immigration reform and Dreamers? Yeah, we have. But I don’t see it driven primarily by current political issues. I see it driven primarily by what the Bible says.
Green: The NAE is part of the Evangelical Immigration Table. That organization has, in the past few years, published letters that have openly criticized policies of the Trump administration, particularly around child detention at the border and family separation.
I’ve wondered if it feels lonely for you to be putting out letters that seem to contradict the views of a large segment of American Christians—the strong majority of white evangelicals who support more restrictive immigration laws, for example. Do you feel out of step with the zeitgeist of evangelicalism on immigration specifically?
Anderson: No. It’s back to the 2,000 verses that talk about the orphan and the widow and the lonely. I would say I’m identifying with the historic theme of biblical faith.
When we first adopted our statement on comprehensive immigration reform, I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and presented it. That was during the Obama administration, so, yes, there were some who did not like what we did. And we lost at least two or three denominational members that were small, with around 300 churches. But we also had strong support from denominations like the Assemblies of God, which has 13,000 churches.
That helped. They, and many of our other members, have significant numbers of immigrants in their congregations. These are their people.
Green: One of my big takeaways from reporting on evangelical communities is that, contrary to some stereotypes, evangelicals are some of the most globally minded people in America. They donate to charities that do extensive aid work overseas. They’re exposed to other countries through mission work or humanitarian trips.
There seems to be a tension between this identity and the political rhetoric that has become popular on the right. This includes President Trump’s disparagement of people “from shithole countries,” or his comment earlier this year that four Democratic congresswomen of color—who are all American citizens, and only one of whom was born outside of the United States—should “go back” to the countries they came from. To me, that language is totally out of whack with the kinds of messages you’ve promoted at the NAE, and that I hear preached from pulpits across the country.
Anderson: I want to be about what we believe and what we’re for and what we’re doing, not about reacting to what other people like and don’t like and say.
Green: Well, then let me ask you about that in a different way. You’re a longtime pastor. One of the roles of a pastor, theoretically, is to make sure his flock is equipped to think through things they hear in the public discourse, and to know what their church teaches about those things.
This is a time when lots of messages coming from the White House and social media and cable news seem to contrast with the vision of the Bible you’ve laid out. “Shithole countries” is the perfect example. I wonder, as a pastor, whether you see it as your responsibility to equip your flock to respond to a message like that coming from our country’s leader?
Anderson: It’s my responsibility to talk about what’s happening in South Sudan. It’s my responsibility to say that the poorest country in the world is the Central African Republic, where a majority of the people are evangelicals, and the country is ripped apart by war. That’s not expending resources and energy opposing people.
Green: Let me try it one more way, then. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Now evangelicals are tied to anything the Trump administration does. Do you feel a responsibility to counter the perception of an association between evangelicals and the president?
Anderson: I think the greater long-term benefit is to do evangelism and teach the Bible, and politics will change. Every year, I host a retreat of denominational CEOs. A number of them have evangelical as part of their denominational name. The general consensus I hear is that concern about using this word peaked two years ago, but there’s less pushback now.
Many evangelical churches don’t have a denomination in their name, and they usually don’t use the word evangelical. They do the work of the church in that community. In exit polls, when people are asked if they're evangelicals, many in the Church probably wouldn’t know they are.
On the 81 percent, I’m just asked about that too much. Because 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney, and 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush. I don’t remember this being raised as much then.
Besides, many evangelicals are African American and Hispanic. There’s never a story written about that.
Green: I think what you’re getting at, obliquely, is the fact that polling can be a poor proxy for the lived reality of communities on the ground. People might not intuitively grasp the language pollsters are using to describe them, and pollsters split up groups of people who have strong theological similarities, such as black Christians and white Christians in the same denomination.
I hear that frustration. But white evangelicals continue to give Trump high approval ratings. They oppose his impeachment in high numbers. Do you think that’s made up, or not representative of a real phenomenon?
Anderson: I’m not questioning that there’s a significant percentage of white evangelicals who share a political persuasion. But to me the big news story is that evangelicals are virtually unanimous in believing in the authority of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, and salvation through Jesus. We’re young and old, midwestern and bicoastal, black and white, Hispanic and Navajo.
Where else do you get that level of agreement on faith issues among such astonishingly different people? That message doesn’t get out there.
Green: You’re describing a picture of unity, which I think is true on certain fundamental theological issues. But on an interpersonal level, particularly among evangelical leaders, to me the story is one of fracture. Has that kind of conflict affected you at all?
Anderson: I keep coming back to the same thing. I’m going to emphasize what we do well, and base it on consensus. I’m sorry about the painful things that people say and do. I was a lifelong pastor, and I know people will say and do unbelievable stuff. If that becomes the center of attention, though, you’ve lost your core.
You can’t be controlled by the distractions. I want to be about who we are and what we’re doing.
Green: Do you think that’s sticking your head in the sand a little bit?
Anderson: No, I think it’s saying that who we are and what we believe is more important than the distractions. Most people are concerned about their children and their mortgage and their health. They care about politics, but to me, the Church and the Gospel and our relationship with God and raising your children—that’s most of your life. Everything I’m saying is coming back to politics for you, and I’m keenly aware of that. But I don’t want that to be what we’re about.