GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, viewed by some social conservatives as the long-awaited political savior of the Religious Right, advised supporters in the Bible Belt not to expect to hear much God-talk from him on the campaign trail.
At a campaign stop in Greenville, S.C., Thompson was asked if he was going to share his religious beliefs as part of his campaign.
“I guess I’m one of those people who feel a little uncomfortable getting too inside your person and personality, but I understand it’s necessary,” Thompson said, according to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
“I’m doing the best I can with it, because I don’t hold myself out to be a perfect person,” Thompson explained. “I’ve not always met the standard that I’ve set for myself, but I know that I’m right with God and I’m right with the people I love, and the people I love are right with me.”
According to Bloomberg, Thompson told reporters he isn’t a regular churchgoer and his church attendance “varies.” He said he attends church when visiting his mother in Tennessee but isn’t a member of a church at his home in McLean, Va.
Thompson’s churchmanship has been a matter of speculation since Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said in March he didn’t think the former U.S. senator and “Law & Order” star is a Christian.
Dobson later said his remark was misunderstood, and Thompson’s campaign said he is indeed a Christian, who was baptized into the Church of Christ. That prompted questions from sources within the Churches of Christ, which, citing his apparent lack of regular church attendance, described him as a lapsed member.
In a story first reported Sept. 6 by EthicsDaily.com, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said Thompson attends a Presbyterian church in Vienna, Va., “on a regular basis,” which he said should satisfy all but hard-line members of the Church of Christ.
But Thompson appeared to contradict Land’s claim Monday in South Carolina. “I attend church when I’m in Tennessee,” he told reporters. “I’m in McLean right now. I don’t attend regularly when I’m up there.”
It is unclear how Thompson’s comment will affect his appeal for the so-called “values voters,” conservative evangelicals credited with helping President Bush to win a second term, who are looking for a clear frontrunner in a race for the GOP nomination led by moderate Republicans viewed as out of step with their social agenda.
The Boston Globe reported in July that Religious Right figures including Land, Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer appeared to be lining up behind an anticipated Thompson candidacy.
After waiting months for him to enter the race, the Associated Press said some prominent evangelical leaders are now having doubts. Rick Scarborough, a Southern Baptist preacher and president of Texas-based Vision America, told the AP he is encouraged by Thompson’s strong voting record in the Senate against abortion, but he questioned the candidate’s commitment to social issues.
“The problem I’m having is that I don’t see any blood trail,” Scarborough said. “When you really take a stand on issues dear to the heart of social conservatives, you’re going to shed some blood in the process. And so far, Fred Thompson’s political career has been wrinkle-free.”
A National Review Online blog reported that Thompson was discussed last week by the Arlington Group, a closed-door think tank of influential conservatives, which is unlikely to endorse him.
While some members of the group are reportedly excited by Thompson’s entry into the race, others said his support for a constitutional amendment on gay marriage that stops short of a ban is inadequate.
Thompson has said gay marriage should be left up to the states, but he would support amending Constitution so that no state is required to acknowledge same-sex unions under the “full faith and credit” clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution.
“How can you have a couple married in Massachusetts and then, when they move to Tennessee they’re not married anymore?” a member of the group asked NRO’s Jim Geraghty. “It just seems to our legal people that America is going to end up with one definition of marriage.”
Religion has been a factor since the beginning of the GOP race, when questions surfaced about whether evangelicals would vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, while overlooking religious convictions that many view as heresy.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, connects with many of the values of evangelicals, but he is hampered by the perception he cannot win in a general election.
Other top-tier candidates, Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are unpopular with the Christian Right.
All that built anticipation for the formal entry of Thompson, who has been compared to Ronald Reagan, into the race. Despite his professed discomfort for religious rhetoric, a reportedly warm crowd in South Carolina prompted him toward the language of Zion by interjecting phrases like “Amen” and “Thank God” at various points during his speech.
At one point, according to the New York Times, Thompson described himself as a “lucky” man. After several audience members corrected him by yelling out the word “blessed,” Thompson accepted the correction, repeating after them, “Yes, blessed.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.