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John the Un-Baptist

Lord ‘a’ mercy! For the self-styled Party of the Godly, the GOP is certainly having a lot of religious issues with its presidential field. There’s Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. There’s Rudy Giuliani’s rather tenuous relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. There’s the question as to whether Fred Thompson is a member of the conservative Church of Christ or the progressive United Church of Christ, or doesn’t go to church at all. There’s Sam Brownback’s conversion from Methodism to Catholicism via the controversial Opus Dei organization. And for those Republicans, if there are any, who are scrupulous about separation of church and state, Mike Huckabee’s position as an ordained Southern Baptist minister might raise a few eyebrows.
And now we learn via AP that John McCain has suddenly started telling people in heavily Baptist South Carolina that he’s not, as he has always been identified, an Episcopalian, but a Baptist, having attended a Phoenix-area Southern Baptist Church for about 15 years.

The Associated Press asked McCain on Saturday how his Episcopal faith plays a role in his campaign and life. McCain grew up Episcopalian and attended an Episcopal high school in Alexandria, Va.
“It plays a role in my life. By the way, I’m not Episcopalian. I’m Baptist,” McCain said. “Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No.”

This news apparently led AP reporter Bruce Smith to do a little googling, and he promptly turned up a rather interesting personal tidbit about McCain from a few months ago:

In a June interview with McClatchy Newspapers, the senator said his wife and two of their children have been baptized in the Arizona Baptist church, but he had not. “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs,” he said.

Well, you’d think anyone who’s been attending a Baptist Church for 15 years might have caught wind of the fact that the denomination, as its name suggests, believes rather adamantly that baptism is necessary for salvation, a reasonably important “spiritual need” by most measurements.
And no, it wouldn’t cut any ice with his fellow-Baptists if it turns out that McCain, like most Episcopalians, was baptized via sprinkling as an infant. Any kind of Baptist I’ve ever heard of holds that only a “believer’s baptism” (i.e., at an age of consent) through full bodily immersion is valid. That’s why their theological ancestors in Europe were contemptuously dubbed “Re-baptizers,” or “Anabaptists.”
I don’t know why McCain has chosen to wander into this particular thicket. But the only way out I can imagine is if he asks Huckabee to baptize him during the next candidate debate.

12 comments on “John the Un-Baptist

  1. guy on

    salvation is by grace through faith it is a gift of God. Baptism is an outward expression of your faith. The only problem I have with a person not being baptized or the “silent witness”. If I had to go to court and my witness was silent, what good would they be for me. But in those regards in the political realm your faith does you no good except for your personal decisions. It is in our coutries best interest that we have biblical dialogue to the politics of our country.

  2. edkilgore on

    In case you or other commenters are still reading, it’s beginning to dawn on me that what I should have said in the original post is that full immersion baptism is central to Baptist “identity,” not to doctrine. Certainly when I was growing up in the First Baptist Church of LaGrange, Georgia, the practice of full immersion, age-of-consent baptism (not to mention the presence of a baptismal fount right behind the centrally located pulpit) is what most notably separated us from our Methodist and Presbyterian brethren and rivals.
    Nowadays, perhaps (as I infer from your last comment) denominational affiliation is more fluid, what with mixed marriages and frequent “conversions” and a general weakening of ancentral connections to particular houses of worship. And obviously, issues like biblical inerrancy and moral theology provide sharper divisions among Protestant denominations than in the past. So maybe “Baptist identity” is less tied up in a particular form of baptism than before. Considering that a hard-line position on separation of church and state also used to be central to Baptist identity (it certainly was when I was growing up), maybe my view of the denomination is simply a bit out of date.
    In any event, thanks to all for a stimulating discussion.

  3. Jason on

    One final thing, Ed, since I’ve grown up Baptist and am in Greenville, South Carolina, I can tell you I’ve met plenty of folks who have come from paedo Baptist backgrounds (Presbyterian, Episcopalian come to mind of actual individuals) who attend for years who choose not to be baptized by immersion in a Southern Baptist church.
    No one thinks any less of them, they just realize that is a matter of conscious and leave it at that. I can quickly think of some faithful people, especially to their particular church, who have been for years, who just aren’t members due to where their conscious leads them on baptism.
    And it works in reverse to. I know a chairman of a local college’s political science department who would make a fine church officer in a Presbyterian church he attends, but refuses nominations to such because of where his convictions are on particular points of Presbyterian doctrine.

  4. edkilgore on

    Okay, Baptists, I surrender on the theological point about the relationship of baptism to salvation, and apologize for the error, which was based less on sheer ignorance than on a misunderstanding of the famous Baptist preoccupation with the validity of different forms of baptism. I really am surprised to learn from Jason that there are Southern Baptist churches that accept infant baptism as valid.
    I would hope that you might acknowledge that my mistake has virtually no bearing on the political point I was trying to make: that having chosen to identify himself as a Baptist, John McCain’s rather casual attitude towards baptism as an option based on one’s “spiritual needs” is jarring, and will be perceived as such by South Carolina Baptists.
    On two small points raised by Jason, yes, I’m aware there’s no organic connection between continental Anabaptists and Anglo-American Baptists, unless you get into the weeds of the Tudor-era Strangers’ Church and so forth. That’s why I called them “theological” ancestors. But without question, I stumbled by attaching an active verb to the word “salvation.”
    Thanks for commenting.
    Ed Kilgore

  5. Patrick on

    I hate to beat a dead horse, but your correction didn’t amount to much.
    In the essay you say: “Well, you’d think anyone who’s been attending a Baptist Church for 15 years might have caught wind of the fact that the denomination, as its name suggests, believes rather adamantly that baptism is necessary for salvation, a reasonably important “spiritual need” by most measurements.”
    In your correction you say: “I may have erred by not making it clear that Baptists do not consider baptism sufficient for salvation”.
    It’s not that you “may have erred.” You did err. And your tone was snide and condescending.
    You have been corrected by many Baptists, and yet your admission was sheepish and half-hearted.
    I am a Baptist pastor, and can tell you that despite our name, we Baptists actually have a “lower” view of Baptist than many denomiations.
    Please, do some research before you write things. Your voice is powerful, so don’t abuse it with ignorance. Just learn before you write.

  6. Jason on

    Wow, you don’t know much about either Baptist history or theology.
    Southern Baptists most certainly do not require immersion baptism (credo baptism) for recognition of salvation. Many Southern Baptist churches do not accept paedo baptism as sufficient baptism, and as such will not allow a person to become a member of a church, but that only means that individual cannot vote in church matters. A lack of recognition of credo baptism means that they will pass no judgment on a person’s salvation. Not e that since Southern Baptist churches are largely independent of one another, some Southern Baptist churches will in fact accept paedo Baptism, it varies on a case by case basis.
    Anabaptists are in no way related to modern Baptists. Anabaptists were continental. Modern Baptists came from an entirely different strain of independents in England in the 17th century.
    You said, “Baptists actually differ on whether it is possible to achieve salvation without baptism, but certainly reject McCain’s apparent idea that it’s optional if you want to be a Baptist in any meaningful sense of the term.”
    Oh Southern Baptists most certainly do not differ on this at all. And besides, no Southern Baptist worth his salt would ever write the phrase “achieve salvation” as that borders on an acknowledgment of works salvation. They would say “receive salvation”.
    As far as Sen. McCain’s idea on being a Baptist, you need to ask is he a voting member of that church, and if so, did that particular church believe that credo baptism was a prerequisite for joining that particular body, as one does not become a member of the denomination at large. Churches are members of the Souther Baptist convention, but individuals are members of particular churches.

  7. David on

    Ed–You’re correct that believer’s baptism by immersion is a requirement for admission into the Baptist fellowship. But this Southern Baptist turned Presbie is still bothered by the notion that it is somehow essential to salvation, and I’m honestly surprised that you learned that growing up. Baptism is a human ritual; to make salvation dependent on a human ritual controlled by the church is to deny God’s sovereignty, and further veers dangerously close to the notion that a person can save herself. To the Southern Baptists who taught me, there is no mediator but Jesus Christ; what God does through Christ isn’t dependent on anything a church or an individual does.
    That said, I’d hardly be surprised if there were some Baptists who feel differently; after all, there are at least 57 different varieties of ’em.

  8. branewave on

    Er, well, not according to the denomination in question (the Southern Baptist Convention). They require baptism for membership in the local church, but make a distinction between individual local churches and the “church” as “Body of Christ”. This second, larger sense of the word “church” is made up of all redeemed persons (even if they’re not members of Baptist local church congregations, and even if they’re not Baptists!).
    (Again referencing the statement of faith I linked to earlier, section VI “The Church”.)
    So no, John McCain probably doesn’t qualify for membership in the local church at which he attends. But neither he nor his church nor the denomination to which it is affiliated “believe[] rather adamantly that baptism is necessary for salvation”.
    As an aside, I’m curious — could you point me at a Baptist statement of faith (or similar) that claims it is impossible “to achieve salvation without baptism”? (This is an aside because we have the statement of faith of the denomination in question — the SBC — and they certainly don’t make this claim.) I’m not doubting you; I’ve just never come across such a Baptist, so finding such a creature would expand my understanding.

  9. edkilgore on

    I may have erred by not making it clear that Baptists do not consider baptism sufficient for salvation (indeed, that was one of their major differences with the magisterial Protestants). They require faith, after which a believer’s baptism becomes a necessary passage before membership in Christ’s Church. Baptists actually differ on whether it is possible to achieve salvation without baptism, but certainly reject McCain’s apparent idea that it’s optional if you want to be a Baptist in any meaningful sense of the term.

  10. branewave on

    Goodness, I’m not sure where you come by the idea that Baptists believe that “full immersion baptism is indeed the sine qua non for salvation”. For instance, if you look at the Southern Baptist Convention’s website (the denomination in question):
    The section about Salvation doesn’t mention baptism and the section on Baptism doesn’t mention salvation!
    Baptism is one of two “ordinances” (the other being communion aka The Lord’s Supper) that are symbolic and memorial acts.

  11. edkilgore on

    As a Christian, I certainly agree with you that none of us are equipped to evaluate John McCain’s spiritual condition. But the fact remains that McCain has chosen, without duress so far as we know, to identify himself with a particular faith community in which full immersion baptism is indeed the sine qua non for salvation. And he can’t have it both ways, being credited in a heavily Baptist constituency for solidarity with their community without fulfilling its most basic tenets.
    And BTW, I didn’t have to do any research on this subject; I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and am now an Episcopalian. I take both denominations seriously; John McCain apparently doesn’t. And that’s his problem.

  12. Paulak on

    You appear to have done your research concerning baptism, but have left out some pertinent information. First, whether or not John McCain or any believer, is baptised by immersion, is a totally personal act. Salvation is not dependent on full immersion, although some churches would argue the point. God’s grace is all that is necessary for salvation and lack of immersion will not keep a person from an eternity in Heaven. That being said, because Christ himself was fully baptized in the Jordan River, and did so in front of a crowd, it is the practice for believers to follow giving their life to the Lord by being baptized.
    Secondly, John McCain’s beliefs are between him and God and none of can rightly know his heart or his motives. God knows that.


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