Tim Pawlenty’s Ex-Catholic Piety

Tim Pawlenty had a bad week on the campaign trail, but I can’t write him out of the running for the GOP presidential nomination just yet, for one simple reason: Patrick Hynes.

Hynes is a friend and former colleague and a major New Hampshire-based political consultant to the Pawlenty campaign who has a very good idea of how to win where it counts, against long odds. Last time around, Hynes signed up for the no-hope candidacy of an also-ran who had fundraising problems and was tanking in the early polls. That candidate’s name was John McCain. In 2007, I laughed at Hynes’s folly. He has tried not to be too obnoxious about it.

If Hynes’s current client, the former two-term Minnesota governor, does manage to get some traction, one sentence from his campaign biography has the potential to create quite the tempest in a tea party. Pawlenty begins chapter eight of Courage to Stand with a confession: “I never expected or planned to leave the Catholic church.”

The now-Protestant Pawlenty explains that, as a kid, he “attended Mass nearly every Sunday,” and not only out of familial obligation. “I took my faith seriously. I went through my first Communion, catechism, and confirmation.”

After Pawlenty’s mother died of ovarian cancer when he was 16, he might have held that against the Almighty. Instead, he writes that “my faith only deepened, and my belief in the existence of a loving God carried on into college and law school.”

So what happened? Pawlenty fell in love with a Protestant (though not anti-Catholic) girl named Mary Anderson. While they were courting, “Mary attended church with me, and I attended church with her and as I fell in love with Mary, I also found myself increasingly drawn to her church, Wooddale Church.”

Pawlenty stresses the fact that Wooddale is an “interdenominational” (he probably means “nondenominational”) megachurch now, but it has its roots in the Swedish Baptists of the Baptist General Conference. Pawlenty says his eventual “decision to join Wooddale was not about rejecting Catholicism,” but in part, “to merge my faith and church life with Mary’s.”

That explanation will seem to some Catholic critics as both too pat and too political. “Leaving” and “rejecting” may be two different things, but they are at least related. Furthermore, Pawlenty just happens to have switched his church affiliation to one that syncs up more closely with the natural base of the GOP’s primary electorate.

While that may sound suspicious, it shouldn’t. Before I get to why, some authorial disclosure is probably best: Tim Pawlenty and your humble scribe have traveled in exact opposite religious arcs. He grew up Catholic and is now effectively a Baptist. I was raised the son of a minister who was educated at the Baptist General Conference’s Minnesota-based Bethel Seminary and am now Catholic.

To these adult-conversion trained ears, Pawlenty’s clipped description of his experience sounds genuine — even guileless. This wasn’t merely a conversion to satisfy the missus; he saw something in his wife-to-be’s religious experience that he lacked.

Mary, writes Pawlenty, “was a student of the Bible. I thought it was so amazing that she could recall so many passages so well and could apply them readily to life’s circumstances.” He was “intrigued” by her ability to “say ‘Just a minute’ while flipping through her Bible. Moments later she’d say, ‘Here’s a passage that might be instructive’ and put the Bible in my hand.” Mary’s example demonstrated to him for the first time “the dynamic relevance of Scripture to my life,” and he wanted more of it. And so, without rancor or protest, Pawlenty left the Catholic Church and became a member of Wooddale.

 

One does not have to agree with Pawlenty’s decision to understand the motivation behind it. In a sense, it’s a back-handed affirmation of an important truth the Catholic Church bids us believe. According to the Catechism, Scripture and Tradition form a “single deposit of faith.” So why are so few lay Catholics serious students of Scripture? Why is it that, if you want to find Catholics who know Malachi from Maccabees, the best bet is to look either for theologians or former Protestant converts?

Unlike Pawlenty, I grew up knowing the Bible was something more than just the readings at weekly Mass. It was read at bedtime, given at graduations, memorized for Wednesday Awana meetings, and thumbed through during thousands of very long sermons. I even accidentally ended up with a degree in biblical studies. My journey to Catholicism began when I realized Tradition is terribly important as well.

The Catholic Church does a good job communicating the importance of Tradition, but that hasn’t always been the case with Scripture. Many pious and intelligent people are attracted to a culture of serious scriptural study, and as long as that is thought of as a Protestant thing, it’s going to create an evangelistic difficulty for the Church. We might as well call it the Pawlenty Problem.

By

Jeremy Lott is editor of RealClearReligion.org and author, most recently, of "William F. Buckley" (Thomas Nelson).

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