Limits of pulpit politics tested in N.C.

First, the pastor told Democrats to leave the church. Now he has left, leaving simmering debate in his wake.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When Pastor Chan Chandler proclaimed a few weeks before last November's election that East Waynesville Baptist Church would become a political church, parishioner Ann Stokley says her "jaw dropped to the floor."

That the young pastor would call John Kerry supporters out as unfit Christians may not have been that surprising during a heated election in this county of some 60 Southern Baptist steeples nestled in the Appalachians.

But Tuesday night, six months after the election - and a week after nine members claim they were kicked out of the church for refusing to vote Republican - Mr. Chandler, a Haywood County native, resigned Tuesday night under pressure from both outside and inside the chapel. A number of his supporters left with him.

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"We're there to learn and worship, not worship Bush," says Ms. Stokley, a registered Democrat. "I just couldn't believe what I was hearing coming from the Lord's podium."

If the rupture of this congregation was an extreme event for a church, it is also part of a simmering debate nationwide about how politicized the pulpit should be. Even in an era of intense partisan divides, the reaction of parishioners here suggests that even in the heart of "red-state" America, many want to see some boundary drawn between the demands of their faith and their ballot-box choices.

"This case actually illustrates that Christians are not ignorant citizens being led around by the nose," says Matthew Staver, an attorney with the Liberty Counsel in Florida, which promotes free speech for clergy. "The people in the pew are thinking for themselves."

Up until his calls for Democrats to depart, Ms. Stokley gave Pastor Chandler the benefit of the doubt. Still, his words troubled her deeply enough that she avoided him outside the sanctuary. "The pastor stands on the front step after the service, but you can always go out the side door," she says.

The case reverberated far outside the wooden doors of the East Waynesville church, rankling even staunch Southern Baptists. Traditionalists in the Southern Baptist Convention point out that Baptists, as far back as the Constitutional Convention, lobbied hard for the separation of church and state.

"What Republicans are learning is that nobody is a total lock," says Paul Froese, a sociology of religion professor at Baylor University. "It's not like they've just captured conservative Christians and are walking away with them. If they start to look too self-righteous, that can turn off a lot of Christians in the long run."

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention with close ties to the White House, said this week that churches should not endorse candidates from the pew.

Conservatism rising

"For somebody to say they're going to 'disfellowship' someone because they disagree on doctrine is extreme and not fundamental to Christian faith," says Mr. Staver of the Liberty Counsel. "But there is a rise in conservatism and a rise in the ability and desire of pastors to speak out on social issues, which I think is very healthy and good."

While many liberals see what happened here as a sign of overreach against secularism, many evangelical Christians say that free speech for the clergy is not only permissible but is crucial to the sanctity of broader societal debates. Some advocates have been pushing to make it easier for pastors to talk politics from the pulpits, without inviting a letter from the IRS. The Internal Revenue Service has since 1954 deemed it illegal to use church funds for political campaigning, but has given relatively wide latitude to preachers.

While the discussion of worldly policies in churches may be growing, it is hardly new. From the abolition movement to ongoing debates over abortion and the teaching of evolution, such talk has ebbed and flowed throughout US history - a tradition that fueled the Civil Rights movement.

But since Jimmy Carter became the first modern evangelical president, the trend has turned to conservatism, ultimately helping to reenergize the Republican Party in the 1980s and beyond.

Baptist pastors say rising politicization also reflects a 20-year push within conservative evangelical churches to promote the moral authority of the pastor over his flock. In last year's election campaign, many black ministers endorsed Kerry's candidacy from the pulpit, while white evangelicals played a large role in supporting President Bush's reelection. A few Roman Catholic bishops threatened to withhold communion from politicians who don't oppose abortion.

Drawing hard lines

But in few places did the pitch go to the lengths that Chandler did here.

"If you vote for John Kerry this year, you need to repent or resign. You have been holding back God's church way too long. And I know I may get in trouble for saying that, but just pour it on," Mr. Chandler told his flock last October, according to a tape recording of the event cited in news reports.

Many of those who opposed Chandler's leadership say they agreed with the pastor's positions on abortion and other hot-button religious topics, but disliked linking those beliefs to specific political positions and candidates.

"I think his duty was to preach God's word and let the people sort out what they want to do," says Frank Lowe, a leader of the members who left the church in opposition to Chandler.

Chandler is believed to have a solid base of support both inside and outside the 150-member church.

But as tears fell and lawyers were on standby on Tuesday night in this pleasant mountain town, one thing became clear: Overt politicization of the pulpit can cause a world of hurt. "The sad part is just the pain and heartache of the congregation," says Robert Prince, pastor of the moderate First Baptist Church in Waynesville. "With some, it's taken on a personal kind of animosity, and that's real bad for the church."

AP material was used in this story.

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