Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Chet Edwards: Potential Vice-President and Poster Child for Denominationalism in America

posted by Mark D. Roberts

As my regular readers know, I don’t tend to do serious blogging on Saturdays. But today I do want to put up something that is vaguely related to my recent series on the PCUSA and denominations.
chet edwardsI’ve been watching with interest the hype surrounding Barack Obama’s imminent announcemet of his running mate. One of the leading candidates is Congressman Chet Edwards of the 17th Congressional District in Texas (not my district). I hadn’t heard of Rep. Edwards before, so I went to his website to learn more about him. I scanned his impressive bio, the last paragraph of his reads:

Chet is a lifelong Methodist. He and his wife, Lea Ann, along with their sons, J.T. (12) and Garrison (11) attend the Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, and the McLean Baptist Church in McLean, Virginia.

I had to read this twice to make sure I understood it. “Chet is a lifelong Methodist.” I got that part. But he attends two Baptist churches. What a curious inconsistency!
I’m not suggesting anything negative about Chet. It may well be that his wife is a Baptist, and that he has chosen to go to the churches of her choosing. There are lots of reasons why Methodists might end up at Baptist churches. I don’t have a problem with this sort of transition. Indeed, I’m glad to see the Rep. Edwards is a faithful churchgoer. (By the way, John McCain grew up as an Episcopalian, but now attends a Baptist church.)
It is telling, however, that a lifelong Methodist ends up worshiping in a Baptist church. This illustrates the fact that most American Christians aren’t especially limited by or even committed to their denominations. For the most part, denominations mean something to those who are greatly involved in them (clergy, denominational officials, etc.), but relatively little to their members. Any conversation of denominations and their future must take seriously the fact that denominational brand loyalty is dying. Some would say it’s already dead.
What I find even more curious in the description of Rep. Edwards’ church affliation is the fact that he is called a “lifelong Methodist” even though he’s not attending Methodist churches. It would seem more accurate to describe him as a former Methodist who is now a Baptist. The odd inconsistency in this paragraph bears further testimony to the way most Christians think of their denominations. Denominational labels just aren’t a big deal. Period. Lifelong Methodist in Baptist churches. Lifelong Baptist in Methodist churches. Who cares?
Well, I just did a bit of digging, and found a partial explanation to the riddle of Rep. Edwards’ denominational affiliations. In an 2003 interview with the Baptist Standard, he was asked about the importance of faith in his life. His answer included the following:

It is a central part of my life and of my family’s values. I was born and raised in the Methodist church, but 10 years ago I married a Baptist preacher’s daughter, and though I am still a Methodist today, our family has attended Baptist churches in Virginia and Texas the last 10 years.

So I guessed right! A lifelong Methodist who marries a Baptist preacher’s daughter would be wise to attend Baptist churches. Give Rep. Edwards ten points for his commitment to and respect for his wife. It is telling, though, that he still calls himself a Methodist, even though he has been part of Baptist churches for the last ten years. I’d love to ask him why he hasn’t joined one of his Baptist churches.
In his interview with the Baptist Standard, Rep. Edwards added,

One of the challenges is trying to set a good Christian example in public office without wearing religion on my sleeve. I think it is sacrilege when politicians use religion to their own political ends. That demeans religion. It is a constant struggle trying to set a good Christian example and trying to reach out to others with my faith while not showing disrespect by furthering my own political ends.

If he ends up as Barack Obama’s running mate, I wonder how he’ll do in an election that seems to want candidates to wear their religion on their sleeves.



  • http://www.communionpres.org RevK

    Isn’t this simply politics? Embracing both ends of the spectrum and hoping everyone in the middle will find it acceptable?

  • Thomas Buck

    I’ve left two denominations because the local churches affiliated with them could not give me what I needed spiritually at the time.
    My first bail-out was from the Catholic Church back in ’76. I was being led to a personal relationship with Christ, in part because of a sermon by a priest who assisted on Sunday morning, but was not a part of the regular clergy of that parish. The other priests seemed either not to know that God was alive, even in 1976, or did not know how to communicate that knowledge if they had it. Since the priest whose preaching impressed me was not assigned to a regular mass, I never knew at what time he was going to speak. We’re talking about nine different masses on a weekend to choose from in a parish of 20,000. After awakening to the living God, this situation was unacceptable to me. Attending Catholic churches in other parishes was strongly discouraged at the time, so looking for another Catholic church whose clergy communicated better was not an option.
    My wife and I later moved, and we joined a Methodist church. We had a series of good ministers. Some years later we moved to our current location, and joined one of the local Methodist churches here. Things seemed to be fine for awhile. But the folks in power in the church engineered the most recent pastor’s removal, primarily because they saw him as too conservative theologically. The other Methodist church in town was even more liberal, so off I went searching for another church. I was torn for a couple of years after leaving, but am pretty comfortable now with my decision.
    In both of these instances, the chances of changing the churches, even at the local level, seemed slim.
    If a church of a particular denomination can’t provide what you need, you can try changing it, or move on to a church that already believes more closely to one’s own beliefs. In some sense, these churches had left their denominations, since their practice was no longer in line with the stated belief of the denomination.

  • Evan

    Your piece on Rep. Edwards suggests reams of commentary. Let me limit myself to one comment.
    Rep. Edwards was a leader in defeating bills to outlaw partial birth abortion, and spoke forecefully in the House defending the practice. I don’t want to hijack things with a grisly description, an explanation of why this is wrong, etc., but suffice to say that it is difficult to reconcile Rep. Edwards’ statements about faith with his championship of this abhorrent practice.
    But let me say in his defense, that is the nature of any sort of sin. We become convinced that what we are doing is fine until conviction by the Holy Spirit exposes our error. Still and all, I would have hoped that our leaders would have seen this for what it is, especially when they profess the primacy of faith in their lives.

  • http://www.the-irn.com Steve

    Mark:
    would you please update your link to the Internet Radio Network. It’s now…
    http://www.the-irn.com

  • Christine

    There is another way to interpret Rep. Edwards’s choices: perhaps his continued and professed adherence to Methodism reflects in fact his loyalty to his own denomination. The fact that he hasn’t joined the Baptist churches he attends may well indicate how loyal he is to the Methodist church. This would not seem to make him “post-denominational” at all.
    My parents have attended a Methodist church for the past twenty years, but they remain Presbyterians. They refused to join the Methodist denomination because as good Calvinists they objected to certain aspects of Methodist polity. But the local Methodist church was the only palatable choice in the very small town they live in, since there is no Presbyterian church there. The reasons why individuals remain part of one denomination but participate in another are more complicated than a blanket “post-denominational” thesis warrants.
    Finally, and more cynically, since we’re dealing with a politician here, it may well be that Rep. Edwards affiliates with two different denominations as way of broadening his appeal to his constituency.

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