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Reports Conflict About Fred Thompson’s Church Membership, Attendance

A Southern Baptist Convention leader weighed into ongoing debate about GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson’s churchmanship, claiming he attends a Presbyterian church in the Washington area “on a regular basis.”

The church’s pastor confirmed he has seen Thompson there but suggested “regular” attendance is an overstatement. And a pro-Thompson blogger said many of the now-official candidate’s religious supporters would be surprised if the Church of Christ-baptized Thompson is indeed now a Presbyterian.

Questions about Thompson’s religious affiliation have dogged the former senator and star of “Law & Order” since Focus on the Family founder James Dobson remarked in March he was under the impression that Thompson is not a Christian.

The Thompson campaign shot back by saying Thompson was baptized into the Church of Christ as a boy in the 1950s. A bio on Thompson’s exploratory Web site said he attended First Street Church of Christ while growing up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where he learned “the importance of family, hard work, faith and education.”

A political science professor at a Church of Christ-affiliated university responded with a tongue-in-cheek “I Saw Fred Thompson at a Church of Christ” Challenge on a blog, observing the former senator “may not be filling out an attendance card at a Church of Christ on Sundays.”

“In our tradition, that’s called ‘being out of fellowship’ or a ‘lapsed member,'” said Professor Mark Elrod of Harding University in Searcy, Ark. Elrod later removed the post from his blog. Asked why, he told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail he would “rather not comment on the story anymore.”

“Incidentally, the blog post was satirical in nature and not meant to be taken seriously,” Elrod added. “I could really care less about where Fred Thompson goes to church.”

A Church of Christ newspaper investigating Thompson’s religious roots found he had been spotted on occasion while worshipping at his mother’s church, Brentwood Church of Christ, in Tennessee, and he spoke at a fund-raising event at Freed-Hardeman University, a college in Henderson, Tenn., affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

EthicsDaily.com asked Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a Thompson supporter, about Thompson’s apparent lack of church involvement. In a race for the GOP presidential nomination where no clear frontrunner has emerged for religious conservatives, Land has described Thompson as a “Southern-fried Reagan” and predicted the race is his to lose.

Land told EthicsDaily.com by phone that Thompson’s wife is “a very regular attender” at Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Va. Land added that Thompson “attends there with his wife and children when he’s in town.”

“So, he is attending church on a regular basis,” Land said. “I think that that information will help, perhaps, with all but some very-devout Church of Christ folks.”

Peter James, pastor of Vienna Presbyterian Church, told EthicsDaily.com in a phone interview that Thompson “has attended” the church. James said he has seen Thompson at the church but has not had a conversation with him.

The Presbyterian pastor said Thompson was at the church “on occasion” and “much less often” than his family.

EthicsDaily.com could find no media references about Thompson attending a Presbyterian church. His campaign didn’t respond to inquiries about his church attendance or whether his listed affiliation of Church of Christ is accurate.

The news came as a surprise to Joe Carter, co-founder of Blogs for Fred, who also works for the Family Research Council.

“Whenever he is asked he has talked about his [Church of Christ] background,” Carter said in an e-mail. “His wife also is from a Congregational Church (with ties to the CoC). For them to go to a Presbyterian church would be quite a shift. Also, someone in D.C. would have blabbed about it by now.”

Thompson and his first wife divorced in 1985. The Church of Christ condones divorce only on grounds of adultery. He married his current wife, Jeri Kehn, in 2002 in the United Church of Christ, a liberal Mainline denomination not associated with the conservative Church of Christ of Thompson’s youth.

The Churches of Christ are about 18,000 independent congregations with a total U.S. membership of more than 2 million. The churches are autonomous and do not consider themselves a denomination, although they do cooperate to sponsor ministries like schools, children’s homes, newspapers and magazines. Ministers do not use clergy titles. The churches teach that baptism is an essential part of the salvation process.

They also emphasize ongoing church membership and worship attendance.

“Regular church attendance is generally seen as a mark of faithful church membership in most congregations of Churches of Christ,” Lee Camp, associate professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com.

“Obviously regular participation in worship assemblies is no sure indicator of Christian faith, but it is generally assumed that participation in a local church body is an expected aspect of Christian practice,” Camp said.

Camp said in the Church of Christ tradition, one typically becomes a member of a local congregation after baptism by immersion. If members relocate geographically, he said, most congregations have a practice of allowing them to “place membership” in a new congregation.

Practices regarding “church discipline for lapsed members” or “cleaning of church rolls,” Camp said, vary “sharply from congregation to congregation.”

Carter of Blogs for Fred agreed that character is as important as issue in a presidential candidate, but he argued it is difficult to measure.

“Some people may think that church attendance is a meaningful indicator,” he said. “Personally, I don’t give it much credence.”

“It would certainly be difficult to be a good Christian without a strong, vibrant connection to a local church,” he said. “But I’m not sure it tells us whether a person can be a good president. Whether Fred Thompson is the right man for the job can’t be determined by counting the times he sits in the pews.”

Robert Parham of the BaptistCenter for Ethics said Thompson should clear up any confusion about his church affiliation and attendance.

“The American people will decide in due time whether Thompson is a man who can be trusted in the Oval Office,” Parham said. “Right now, however, voters deserve to know the truth about Thompson’s churchmanship, if any.”

“Christian voters especially deserve straight-talk if Thompson is going to use God-talk in his campaign,” Parham said. “If Thompson doesn’t walk the talk, then he misuses faith for wrongful political ends and discloses a deep moral flaw.”

Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. Bob Allen of EthicsDaily.com contributed to this story.