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Future president? Fred Thompson’s church roots draw interest

The 106th Congressional Record listed Thompson’s religious affiliation as “Church of Christ (Stone Campbell).” In an interview with the U.S. News and World Report this week, Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo said: “Thompson is indeed a Christian. He was baptized into the Church of Christ.”
Corallo did not immediately return calls from the Chronicle seeking additional information about the politician and Law and Order actor’s religious background.
David Pinckley, treasurer of the Pulaski Street Church of Christ in Thompson’s hometown of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., said the two grew up together.
“We went to school together, played football, went to church for many years here in Lawrenceburg,” Pinckley told the Chronicle on Friday.
“I don’t know his religious status right now, but we were both baptized around 1951-1952 maybe,” Pinckley added. “We were either 10 or 11 years old. He was baptized at the First Street church in Lawrenceburg. It’s a non-institutional church now, but it wasn’t then.”
Thompson spoke in 1997 at a fund-raising event at Freed-Hardeman University, a Henderson, Tenn., college associated with Churches of Christ. Thompson used his speaking fee to create an endowed scholarship at Freed-Hardeman for history and political science students, said Stephen Morris, assistant professor of political science and university counsel.
The Robert and Ruth Thompson academic scholarship – named after Thompson’s parents – offers freshman scholarships worth between $2,500 and $5,000. His father died, but Ruth Thompson lives in Franklin, Tenn., and is a member of the Brentwood Church of Christ, Pinckley said. The Chronicle has received several e-mails from those who attend or have visited the Brentwood church saying Thompson has worshipped there on occasion with his mother.
Thompson’s faith became an issue in the national media when Focus on the Family founder James Dobson appeared to throw cold water on a Thompson candidacy in an interview with U.S. News.
“Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for,” Dobson said of Thompson. “(But) I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression,” Dobson added, telling U.S. News that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.
Focus on the Family later issued a clarifying statement, saying that in the U.S. News interview, “Dr. Dobson was attempting to highlight that to the best of his knowledge, Senator Thompson hadn’t clearly communicated his religious faith, and many evangelical Christians might find this a barrier to supporting him. Dr. Dobson told (the reporter) he had never met Senator Thompson and wasn’t certain that his understanding of the former senator’s religious convictions was accurate. Unfortunately, these qualifiers weren’t reported. … We were, however, pleased to learn from his spokesperson that Senator Thompson professes to be a believer.”
According to U.S. News, Thompson has said he is leaving the door open for a presidential run and has won plaudits from conservatives who are unenthusiastic about the Republican front-runners. A Gallup-USA Today poll, released Tuesday, showed Thompson in third place among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, behind New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Divorced since the mid-1980s, Thompson married Jeri Kehn, a political and media consultant 24 years his junior, at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville, Ill., in 2002. They have two young children. Thompson also has two grown sons and five grandchildren.
All the discussion about Thompson’s possible Church of Christ ties prompted a humorous challenge on the blog of Mark Elrod, a Harding University political scientist, at www.markaelrod.net.
In a post titled “The ‘I Saw Fred Thompson at a Church of Christ’ Challenge,” Elrod offered Web immortality to the first person to provide him “with a somewhat believable Fred Thompson sighting at an assembly of the Church of Christ (Stone-Campbell) in the last 20 years.”
Elrod asked specifically for any information on Thompson teaching a Bible class, presiding at the Lord’s table or leading singing.
“If it was 728b and you can prove it,” Elrod said of Thompson leading singing, “I’ll give you $100.”
Meanwhile, a few readers have contacted the Chronicle asking if Democratic president candidate Barack Obama, an Illinois senator, is a Church of Christ member.
The answer on that question is a bit clearer: Obama belongs to the United Church of Christ, a liberal denomination that ordains women and gays and supports same-gender marriage equality. The mainline Protestant demonination was formed in 1957 when the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reform Church merged.

Filed under: National Staff Reports

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