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Teapot tempest

Politics | Tiny North Carolina church becomes latest flashpoint in national debate over church and politics

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

WAYNESVILLE, N.C. - "Give 'em an inch," said Don Partridge, "and they'll always take a mile. Give 'em even a quarter of an inch-and they'll still take that mile."

Mr. Partridge was munching on a danish at Jack's Donut Shop just a block down the street from East Waynesville Baptist Church-which last week was easily the most famous congregation in all of North Carolina, and maybe in the nation. Mr. Partridge had traveled north to play golf-as he does every spring and summer-from Fort Lauderdale.

But with a cup of black coffee in his left hand, he pointed disgustedly to the front-page headlines in a local paper, which reported that Rev. Chan Chandler had resigned the evening before from his embattled role as pastor of the East Waynesville church. "Check it out," said Mr. Partridge. "I'll tell you it's not as simple as the newspaper makes it out to be."

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Newspaper accounts had indeed been pretty black and white for a whole week. So had the stories on TV-not only locally, but even those picked up by national outlets like ABC's Good Morning America, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. By those accounts, Mr. Chandler, a 33-year-old pastor still finishing his master's degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, had engineered the excommunication of nine of his faithful members for the "sin" (that was the dark word used by the local CBS station) of voting last November for John Kerry instead of George W. Bush. Some reports simplified it even further, claiming that the expulsions had been accomplished by a group of Republicans eager to kick Democrats out of the church.

But Mr. Partridge, who said he is "a Bible-believing Baptist" himself, and a deacon in his home church in Florida, was right when he said the mainstream media had badly garbled the story.

He may also have been astute when he talked about the danger of "giving 'em an inch." For even many of Mr. Chandler's friends and supporters say they might not have said things just the way their pastor did last October. After preaching bluntly about the sin of abortion, Mr. Chandler reportedly followed up by coming down from the pulpit and offering an invitation-a regular practice in his ministry. As part of that invitation, according to several who were there that day, he said that anyone who was supportive of the practice of abortion-or supportive of politicians who backed abortion-should either repent or leave the church.

Some say he specifically referenced John Kerry, while others don't remember Mr. Kerry's name being mentioned. Mr. Chandler says he has also mentioned the names of two Republicans whose views he says "are out of step with the Bible."

Details of what happened in the months since then are hotly disputed. Chandler critics say their pastor deliberately polarized the congregation, telling them, "This is going to be a political church." Chandler defenders back their pastor when he says simply that "the gospel of the Bible has implications for all of life-and that is a new thought to a lot of people, even those who have sat in the pews of our churches for many years. Too many Southern Baptists have been taught for decades that religion and politics should never mix."

By Sunday, May 1, the two sides of the 100-member congregation visibly entrenched, Mr. Chandler announced a meeting of the church deacons the following evening-and took the unusual step of inviting as many members as might like to come.

At that meeting, attended by 40 people or so, Mr. Chandler encouraged the adoption of a policy statement committing the church to a ministry featuring the gospel as affecting all of life-including public-policy issues. The pastor says the evening's ground rules were clear to all: If those who were unhappy with that emphasis in Mr. Chandler's ministry could garner a simple majority, Mr. Chandler would leave his post as pastor. Instead, a clear majority of the group rallied to his cause.

But to nine of the members, such support constituted a declaration of political partisanship. All nine walked out. "We could have gotten more to come if we had known how important it was," said Margaret Biddix, who has been a member for 26 years. She told WORLD: "We just didn't realize that when he said we were going to be a political church he meant we were going to be a Republican church."

"I don't know how these folks voted," Mr. Chandler told WORLD and Baptist Press. "And I never endorsed any candidate."

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