By the Way: John the Baptist?

By this point in the 2008 presidential primary season, the religious affiliations of the candidates have been fairly well established. Mike Huckabee, as the media never tire of saying, is a Baptist minister. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a United Methodist, and Barack Obama is a Congregationalist (not a Muslim, by the way, contrary to the persistent falsehoods circulating in cyberspace).

The only remaining candidate who seems confused about his religious orientation is John McCain, who can’t decide if he’s an Episcopalian or a Baptist. Everyone—including, presumably, his wife—thought that he was an Episcopalian. That’s how he’s listed in those Congressional directories that provide the religious affiliations of members of Congress. He was reared in the Episcopal Church and attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia.

But while campaigning last fall in South Carolina (one of those southern states where there are more Baptists than people), McCain dropped the bombshell that he’s Baptist, not Episcopalian.

Huh? Perhaps I know (and care) far too much about these things, but I confess that I’ve rarely confused Episcopal churches or worship for Baptist ones. I was reared a baptist (I’m going to leave that lowercase intentionally to signal that my religious upbringing insisted on adult, or believer’s, baptism, even though the denomination did not have the word “Baptist” in its name). I’m now an Episcopal priest, so I think I’m qualified to explain the difference between the two.

I offer, then, some hints for Senator McCain so that he’ll be able to tell if he’s in an Episcopal church or a Baptist church.

First, the architecture. Most Episcopal churches look old and venerable, while many Baptist churches (especially in the South) try to look old and venerable by adopting a kind of neo-Georgian architecture in an effort to claim a history that is not really theirs.

As you enter a typical Episcopal church, what you see front and center is the altar, with the pulpit on the side, whereas in a Baptist church the visual center is the pulpit; the altar (or “communion table”) is rarely used. Accordingly, the climax of the worship service in a Baptist church is the sermon, while everything in Episcopal worship culminates in the Holy Eucharist.

If the pews are filled, you’re probably in a Baptist church. Sadly, if there are a lot of empty seats and a lot of grey hair, it’s likely you stumbled into an Episcopal church.

The style of music is also different. If you notice an overhead projector or a screen for the projection of PowerPoint presentations, you’re probably not in an Episcopal church. So too if you see an ensemble of people up front clutching microphones and singing with their eyes closed. This is called a “worship team” or a “praise band.” Episcopalians (thank God!) don’t do praise bands.

When it’s time for congregational singing in an Episcopal church, the organ music will swell and the congregation rises to its feet unbidden. If, on the other hand, someone steps out front and announces a page number, you’re in a Baptist church. That person will very likely wave his arms while everyone sings.

If, on the other hand, everyone is waving his or her arms, Senator, chances are pretty good that you’ve stumbled into a Pentecostal church.

Or a roomful of lobbyists.

Care to comment? Send a Letter to the Editor at: submissions@religiondispatches.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *