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Thompson Grossly Overstates Endorsement of ’40 Million’ Wesleyans

Presidential candidate Fred Thompson spoke ministerially–a euphemism in preacher circles for inflating numbers from the pulpit–when he claimed endorsement by two men representing 40 million Wesleyans, according to a newspaper report.

Last week Thompson received endorsement from two leaders of the Wesleyan Center for Strategic Studies, ministers Phillip Knight and Benny Tate.

“I am honored and blessed to receive the endorsement of these two men who represent 40 million people around the nation from 42 different Wesleyan denominations,” Thompson said at a Friday press conference at the State Capitol in Jackson, Miss.

The story hit major media outlets over the weekend. Time Magazine repeated the figure in an article describing the organization as “an umbrella group for 40 million conservative Methodists across the U.S.” ABC News said Knight and Tate promised “endorsements of 100 conservative Methodist pastors in the coming days.”

On Tuesday, however, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Knight and Tate have never been elected to represent the nation’s Methodists and Wesleyans, which combined number only 14.2 million.

The two men are president and vice president of the Congregational Methodist Church, a conservative Wesleyan denomination with a total membership of about 26,000. Three thousand of those are from a single congregation, Rock Springs Church in Milner, Ga., where vice president Tate is pastor. Most ministers in the group are trained at Wesley College in Florence, Miss., where the denomination’s headquarters are housed.

Knight and Tate founded the Wesleyan Center for Strategic Studies in 2006. A Web site describes it as “a conservative group designed to give a voice to the Wesleyan-Arminians across America.”

A blog called Wesleyan Voice contains six postings dating back to Nov. 5. The latest is the press release announcing the two leaders’ endorsement of Thompson.

“After spending time with the Thompsons, I am convinced they are a God-fearing family,” Tate said. “Senator Thompson is a man with a clear testimony and a strong Christian character. I have no doubt that the Senator is a man who loves the Lord.”

An earlier blog expressed reservations about whether former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a “moral conservative” with grassroots appeal to evangelicals, is conservative enough fiscally and on defense.

Knight said idea for the Wesleyan Center for Strategic Studies was formed from the Wesleyan Leaders Summit, an annual meeting of the leaders of about 30 conservative Wesleyan/Methodist denominations from across America. Its objective, he said, “is to give the conservative Methodist movement a stronger voice regarding the issues that directly affect the life and soul of America.”

“Our Wesleyan perspective should be heard in philosophy, the arts and in the political process,” the group says on its Web site. “Wesleyan preachers, theologians and apologists, those who shape our opinions, need to have their voices on the airwaves of America. Instead Christian TV is filled with the diatribe of the unaccountable independents, the calculating contracts of the charismatic charlatans and the mighty purveyors of Calvinistic thought. It seems for too long our voice has been indistinguishable from those who have risen to give Evangelicals a voice.”

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Thompson’s claim “proves yet again how disconnected he is from American Christianity.”

“Not only did he grossly inflate the number of Wesleyans, but he misunderstands the nature of support coming basically from two guys and a computer,” Parham said. “Thompson appears too lazy to do respectable homework to discern the difference between substantive and superficial Christian organizations.”

“As for Time Magazine, its mistake is flat sad,” Parham said. “Perhaps its political desk forgot that the magazine has a top flight religion desk. If political reporters would respect religion reporters, such wild errors would not be made.”

The term Wesleyan, in its broad sense, refers to churches rooted in teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, including the 8 million-member United Methodist Church. Knight and Tate represent a smaller branch of Methodism called the Holiness movement, which emphasizes sanctification as a “second definite work of grace subsequent to regeneration.”

Each Congregational Methodist church is governed by its own congregation, unlike the United Methodist Church, which is led by bishops. Congregational Methodists are conservative and read the Bible literally, while United Methodists are more progressive and mainline Protestant.

Knight told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the Wesleyan Center for Strategic Studies has at least three employees and an office “primarily in Washington, D.C.”

Pressed for details, he said the group doesn’t actually own its office but borrows space from an organization called American Values when members travel to Washington. That’s the group led by former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate in the current race.

Bauer told the newspaper he has offered to rent space to the WCSS but nothing has been finalized. He said lets the group borrow space but hadn’t seen anyone from the center in a couple of months.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.