WAYNESVILLE, N.C., May 9, 2005 -- For many residents of this hamlet nestled in the Smoky Mountains, nothing is as important as church. That's why nine longtime members of East Waynesville Baptist Church are so devastated after being kicked out of the congregation for, they say, supporting Democrat John Kerry's presidential bid.
They say the Rev. Chan Chandler led a charge to boot them from the church because they supported the Massachusetts senator's 2004 campaign.
Edith Nichols, who was ousted from the congregation along with her husband, said the pastor's instructions were clear: "Those that did not support Bush needed to leave, that they were sinners that believed in abortion and all the wrong things."
Lewis Inman, a deacon for 20 years, said being thrown out of his church was worse than when he was laid off from his job of 30 years.
"I'm very, very sad. This has been our church home, our church family," Inman said, his voice trembling. "It's the only church I've ever been in."
Chandler would not speak on the record to ABC News. But in an audiotape of a sermon from last October, he said God had urged him to endorse President Bush as the only truly Christian candidate.
"Now, friend, you know and I know abortion is wrong, there's no way around it. But the question then comes in, in the Baptist Church, how do I vote? Let me just say this right now: If you vote for John Kerry this year, you need to repent or resign," Chandler said on the tape, obtained from the church library by ABC affiliate WLOS in Asheville.
"You have been holding back God's church way too long," he said on the tape. "And I know I may get in trouble for saying that, but just pour it on."
More and More Pastors Preach Politics
Some members of the congregation say Chandler is acting out of his beliefs, and they support him..
"He's a wonderful, good ol' country boy, who listens to what God has to lay on his heart and he delivers the messages God handed to him," said church member Pam Serafin.
But the Baptist pastor across town called Chandler's actions "appalling."
Robert Prince, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waynesville, said when church leaders become involved in politics, it can have a negative effect on the church.
"There have been times when I've wanted to make some sort of endorsement," he said, "but you have to weigh that against what that does to the church, what that does to the membership and what that does to the cause of Christ."
To some, what's happening at East Waynesville Baptist Church is just the logical next step in what's seen as an increasing amount of politics being preached from the pulpit.
Last year, many black preachers endorsed Kerry in churches across the country.
"To bring our country out of despair, despondency and disgust, God has a John Kerry," the Rev. Gaston E. Smith said last October at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Miami.
In Philadelphia, right after a pro-Kerry appearance by fellow Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Rev. Ernest C. Morris Sr. told about 1,500 worshippers, "I can't tell you who to vote for, but I can tell you what my mama told me last week: 'Stay out of the bushes.' "
And in Cincinnati, Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church Pastor Donald H. Jordan Sr. said of Kerry's running mate, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., "I'm not worried about the law. I'm asking you to support him."
The secular group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State even asked the Internal Revenue Service to look into these latter two incidents to see if they violated the tax code's prohibition on political endorsements by churches that enjoy the benefits of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Conservatives, of course, weighed in heavily for Bush. In addition to the vigorous efforts of fundamental Christian leaders like James Dobson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Rev. Pat Robertson, many Catholic churches weighed in by refusing to offer communion to Kerry, a Catholic who supports legal abortion rights. In Colorado, Bishop Michael Sheridan even denied communion for Kerry voters.
"What doesn't really compute for me is someone who says 'I am a Catholic but I will pick and choose and name for myself what that means,' " Sheridan told ABC News last year.
"What is generally the rule is that churches talk about issues," said Helen Alvare, a professor of law at Catholic University in Washington. "What they don't do and what the IRS forbids them from doing is say, 'Vote for Candidate X.' "
On Sunday, obviously taken aback by the national media attention his actions were getting, Chandler had an attorney, John J. Pavey Jr., read a statement that his church "fellowships openly with all who embrace the authority and application of the Bible regardless of political affiliation."
The statement went on to insist that "no one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual's support or lack of support for a political party or candidate."
Pavey could not explain why the sentiments of the statement were contradicted by so many members of the church on both sides of the debate, or by the audiotape of Chandler's sermon last Oct. 3.
Indeed, though some media reports have repeated Chandler's claim that this was all just a "misunderstanding," the full content of that sermon seems very clear.
"We have a society of preachers who are afraid to get up in the pulpit and speak the truth," Chandler said in the taped sermon. "There are people in the congregations, leaders -- deacons, teachers, Sunday school teachers -- people who pay their tithe and let the pastor know it very loudly, that tell the pastor he cannot say anything political. He can say that it's all right for you to support someone that does not support abortion. But you can't name names."
"'You start naming names,'" Chandler said he was told, "'we're gonna ask you to leave.' " But that's a cop-out, "hiding behind the pulpit," Chandler claimed.
"We've been catering to Satan, catering to the enemy, we've not been making the stand that God wants us to make," he said. Then he said Kerry voters need to repent or resign.
He said in the sermon that he doesn't care if he offends anyone: "I want to make the Who's Who list in heaven, not yours." Later in the sermon he said, "If you're going to be offended today, take it up with the most high. I am merely the spokesperson. Don't kill the messenger."
Directing his comments to Kerry supporters seated in the pews, Chandler asked: "Why do you support an unbeliever over a man who says, 'This is the day when I saved and now my life changed'? Why do you support an unbeliever over a believer? Let me see, do I support a Christian or a non-Christian? Do I support someone who kills babies or I support someone who says, 'Let's let 'em live.' Do I support someone who says, 'Let's marry the gays,' or someone who says, 'Let's uphold God's law and not'?"
Praying for a Resolution
Ousted congregants Frank and Thelma Lowe are somewhat typical of their fellow exiles: Frank voted for Kerry, Thelma for Bush. But they both object to Chandler's attitude toward those with whom he disagrees.
"I don't think this is any place to tell people how to vote, in the pulpit," Thelma Lowe said. "I think that's a choice we have, freedom. That we should vote the way we want to vote. Not even your husband should tell you how and my husband doesn't tell me how."
An attorney for the ousted congregants, David Wijewickrama, said this evening that the situation remained unresolved.
"The bottom line is these are good, elderly, Southern people and at this point in their lives, their church means everything to them," he said. "And what they want is peace."
Some of the ousted congregants seemed open to the idea of a rapprochement with Chandler, while others thought the pastor had so politicized their church that the only answer was for him to leave.
A church meeting was scheduled for Tuesday evening, but judging by the faces of some in the parking lot Sunday afternoon after services had concluded, the schism has already taken a heavy toll on the congregation.
"It's really sad," said congregant William Rash, breaking down into tears. "I just pray to God that things will get worked out."
Laura Marquez and Jay Lamonica contributed to this report.