Fred and Jeri Thompson (Courtesy CBS News
Doubts continue to swirl over Fred Thompson’s faith even among members of his own church.
First, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson was reported to have said the Republican presidential hopeful is not a real Christian. Thompson shot back that he’s not only a Christian, but a member of the fundamentalist Churches of Christ.
Now a political science professor at a Church of Christ-affiliated college charges Thompson is a “lapsed member.” And he has issued a challenge on the Internet to anyone who can come up with evidence that Thompson, now an actor, is active in the Church of Christ.
Is the Hollywood star-turned-politician a true believer?
Thompson’s chances at capturing the GOP primary may rest on the answer, thanks to the growing electoral clout of Christian conservatives.
The political scientist says he hasn’t been able to find any information regarding the former senator’s actual membership in a local congregation in his home state of Tennessee.
“In our tradition,” Elrod said, “that’s called ‘being out of fellowship’ or a ‘lapsed member.'”
On his blog, the professor challenged the Church of Christ faithful to produce evidence they’ve seen Thompson “at an assembly of a Church of Christ (Stone-Campbell) in the last 20 years.” So far nobody has met the challenge.
Specifically, Elrod is soliciting any information about Thompson having:
Taught a Bible class,
Presided at the Lord’s table,
Served as a greeter,
Or led singing (“If it was 728b and you can prove it, I’ll give you $100,” he wagered, referring to the hymn, “Our God, He Is Alive,” which is considered an anthem in the Churches of Christ).
A spokesman for Thompson, who’s expected to formally announce his candidacy next month, said the actor-politician “is indeed a Christian. He was baptized in the Church of Christ.”
A website listing adherents of the Churches of Christ suggests Thompson was “raised” in the church but may have fallen away as an adult.
However, the 106th Congressional Record listed his religious affiliation as “Church of Christ (Stone-Campbell),” which requires adult baptism by immersion for salvation.
WND has learned that the 64-year-old Thompson was baptized into Christ in the early 1950s at the First Street Church of Christ in Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
His mother, Ruth Thompson, regularly attends the Brentwood Church of Christ near Nashville, one of the most conservative Churches of Christ in the state. Fred Thompson is known to worship there when he visits his mother.
In 1997, Thompson spoke at a fund-raising event at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. – another college affiliated with the Churches of Christ – where he was presented with a Bible. He and his parents have set up academic scholarships in their names there.
Sources say Thompson and former prosecutor and Church of Christ member Kenneth Starr became close last decade while investigating Clinton administration corruption.
Thompson led Senate hearings on the Chinagate fundraising scandal. He called Starr to testify before his committee, praising him for his convictions of various Clinton figures and defending him against “exceedingly personal and vituperative” attacks on his character by Clinton apologists.
Still, evangelical Christians have questioned whether Thompson is a true believer.
As WND reported, Dobson took issue with a U.S. News and World Report story quoting the conservative leader saying of Thompson, “Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for, [but] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression.”
According to a spokesman for Focus on the Family, Dobson had not not meant to disparage Thompson and was simply “attempting to highlight that to the best of his knowledge, Sen. Thompson hadn’t clearly communicated his religious faith, and many evangelical Christians might find this a barrier to supporting him.”
Dobson told reporter Dan Gilgoff he had never met Thompson and wasn’t certain that his understanding of the former senator’s religious convictions was accurate.
“Unfortunately, these qualifiers weren’t reported by Mr. Gilgoff,” the group’s statement said. “We were, however, pleased to learn from his spokesperson that Sen. Thompson professes to be a believer.”
While Dobson has expressed a willingness to take the Thompson claim at face value, Elrod’s challenge indicates the question has not been answered satisfactorily within his denomination.
Thompson and his first wife, Sara Lindsey, divorced in 1985. The Church of Christ frowns on divorce, and believes only “fornication,” or sexual infidelity, can be grounds for divorce and remarriage.
In 2002, Thompson and second wife, Jeri Kehn, were married in the liberal United Church of Christ, not the ultra-conservative Churches of Christ to which Thompson claims to belong.
Thompson nonetheless is polling well among conservatives and older men, according to a new AP-Ipsos survey. One in four of his supporters cites his strong character, more than any other GOP candidate.
Thompson is already polling high among the GOP field, and is tied for second with Sen. John McCain behind frontrunner former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the AP poll shows.
Political strategists say Thompson would likely have to distance himself from the Churches of Christ in a general election bid. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, in particular, could make hay of his affiliation with the church, which restricts women’s role in the worship service.
“There are some things women are not allowed to do,” explained Church of Christ preacher David Pharr, who graduated from Freed-Hardeman College in Tennessee. “They are not allowed to pray, teach or even ask questions when such would be usurping authority over men.”
Last year, CNN and other media described the Church of Christ as a “cult” that oppresses women after a preacher’s wife, Mary Winkler, shot her husband in the back in Tennesee. The church denies being a cult.