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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Fred’s Faith–and Obama’s

We all know that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has become an issue in the Republican presidential nominating contest, as has Sam Brownback’s Opus Dei-assisted conversion to Catholicism, and Rudy Giuliani’s tenuous links to Rome. But now there’s a fourth GOP candidate whose faith is in question: Fred Thompson.
It probably started with James Dobson’s infamous statement back in March about Thompson that he “didn’t think he was a Christian.” Focus on the Family later issued a weasily “clarification” suggesting that Dobson had actually meant he didn’t know one way or another about Fred’s faith.
Inquiring minds wanted to know, so (as explained in an illuminating article in The Christian Chronicle) it soon came out that Thompson was baptized in, and has occasionally been identified with, the Churches of Christ. But his second marriage, in 2002, was performed in a United Church of Christ service in Illinois.
As you may or may not know, the similar-sounding Churches of Christ and United Church of Christ are about as similar as a hound dog and a chili dog. The former is a very conservative but loosely organized quasi-denomination that split off from the mainline Disciples of Christ in the early twentieth century, mainly over opposition to the use of musical instruments in church. The latter, formed from the Congregationalist and certain German Reformed churches in the 1940s, is the most liberal of trinitarian American protestant denominations; the UCC happily ordains openly gay and lesbian clergy, and performs same-sex unions. (Indeed, its position casts an interesting light on active UCC member Barack Obama’s own position that denominations, not the state, should determine access to “marriage.”) Ironically, the denomination the UCC is closest to is the Disciples of Christ.
Having spilled a ridiculous number of words at NewDonkey.com back in October 2005 (sorry, link is not available but you can find it in the archives of that site, in case you’re interested) trying to explain Harriet Miers’ relationship to the Churches of Christ, I can tell you that the CofC’s intensely decentralized nature and hostility to creeds and theological speculation have made it difficult to divine its members’ views on much of anything other than biblical inerrancy and liturgical primitivism. Indeed, other conservative evangelicals have been known to complain the CofC’ers are laggards in the fight to ban abortion.
So where does Fred fit in? I dunno, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to have to start showing up at church somewhere. And he probably won’t be rubbing elbows with Barack Obama in the UCC.

One comment on “Fred’s Faith–and Obama’s

  1. Albert Whited on

    I think we can safely assume that Fred D. Thompson first attended a Churches of Christ congregation, not the United Church of Christ.
    A few facts bear this out. According to his official Congressional biography Thompson, though born in Sheffield, AL, attended public schools in Lawrenceburg, TN. Since he took his undergraduate degree from Memphis State University in 1964, we may assume his Lawrenceburg public schooling stretched from approximately 1948-1960. These dates are significant, since the UCC was not formed until 1957 (as a merger of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church) according to the UCC’s web site. Also according to the UCC, even today there are no UCC congregations in or around Lawrenceburg, TN. (The nearest is 36 miles distant in Athens, AL with their nearest concentration being 7 congregations in the Nashville, TN area, about 65 miles to the north.)
    Lawrenceburg, TN, however, boasts no fewer than 9 of the loosely associated Churches of Christ in its city of only 14,000 and immediate environs. As a native of middle TN and as one unfortunately raised in the primitive, strictly fundamentalist CoC, this writer can attest to that region being a locus of great CoC concentration. From the odd perspective of the CoC, indeed, middle TN is the vertitable “Buckle of the Bible Belt”.
    It is without a doubt, then, that Thompson was inured in the CoC traditions of biblical literalism and dogmatic separatism that marks their congregations. But, it is unsurprising that a subsequent marriage was held in a UCC. One imagines that Thompson’s 2nd wife had much to do with that choice, as well as whatever church Thompson may have attended at that time.
    As a Vanderbilt Law graduate, practicing attorney, politician, and actor, Thompson had to adopt a moral relativism so necessary to the acquital of any of those professions. Such moral relativism is anathema to the dogma of the CoCs, but would be better tolerated by the much more liberal UCC. It seems Thompson had a conversion of convience somewhere along the way. As one of much more complete rejection of CoC dogma, this writer thoroughly empathizes.
    However, one must wonder what precepts of fundamentalist Christianity were deeply set in the formative psyche of the young Thompson. How did it inform his conservatism. In a recent conversation with this author’s father, a long-time CoC minister, the widely-held belief in the infallibility of GWB and the rightness of his war among the CoC faithful were discussed. Even in the light of all evidence and the reported attrocities in Iraq, it seems this is one group that is still solid in its unwavering support of GWB. (The effects of a requirement of unquestioning obedience to authority in the church and to the scriptures and their impact on the reaction–particularly of the poorly educated and working class in America–to governmental and business authority structures would make for a fascinating study.)
    So, we are right to question the religious training of Fred Thompson–as well as his seeming willingness to “flip-flop”, as it were, his religious affiliations. And on a final cautionary note, we should not forget the last unequivocal CoC member momentarily to pull his head from, er, the sand: Kenneth Starr!

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