Leith Anderson, Retiring Leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, Wants Them to Be Known by Faith, Not by Race or Politics

Leith Anderson has president of the National Association of Evangelicals since 2006. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Leith Anderson is a fan of the word “evangelical” and the Christians who claim that name.

But he knows 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 said in a recent (Nov. 19) interview. “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.

The longtime pastor wants evangelicals to be defined by their faith — not their politics.

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

John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College, said Anderson has successfully balanced the NAE’s stances — advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, welcoming refugees and opposing racism while supporting traditional marriage and opposing abortion.

But Anderson, whom Fea called a “quiet spokesman” with a pastoral heart, has been overshadowed by fellow evangelicals Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr.  Those two are often seen as public faces of evangelicals and more likely to be quoted in the media.

“It’s a very awkward place,” said Fea, author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” “It doesn’t fit well in talk radio or the talking heads screaming at each other on cable news.”

Under Anderson’s leadership, NAE worked with LifeWay Research to develop a statistical understanding of the diversity among U.S. evangelicals and found that 44% of African Americans, 30% of Hispanic Americans and 29% of whites can be defined as evangelical.

“So the reality is, in absolute numbers there are a lot more white evangelicals, but in terms of if you meet somebody in the street, an African American Christian is much more likely to be an evangelical,” 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.

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.”

Last month (October), with Anderson’s encouragement, the NAE board transformed the look of his organization’s future leadership. The Rev. Walter Kim, an Asian American theologian, will 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 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.”

That has not always been easy.

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Source: Religion News Service