July/August 2018 Church & State Magazine | Featured

The Rev. Robert Jeffress wasn’t well known on the national stage until he became one of the earliest and most vocal of the evangelical Christian leaders who supported Donald Trump through his candidacy and into the White House. But to Americans United he was no stranger – in fact, Jeffress has been on AU’s radar screen for two decades.

It was back in 1998 that Americans United first sounded the alarm about Jeffress’ disdain for separation of religion and government.

Then a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas, Jeffress tried to rally his congregation of more than 8,000 to influence city politics and vote against any council members who didn’t support his anti-LGBTQ views.

Jeffress’ crusade began when he learned there were two books with LGBTQ themes in the children’s section of his local public library. A parishioner had checked out and turned over to Jeffress Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate, two groundbreaking books that helped children understand families that included same-sex couples. Jeffress confiscated the books, refusing to return them to the library and instead paying $54 in fines.

He didn’t stop there. At a library advisory board meeting, Jeffress threatened city leadership.

“Any council member who does not stand up and say these books should be taken from the shelves ought to be removed from office,” he thundered. And days later, he rallied his congregation to “vote out the infidels who would deny God and his word.”

Concerned citizens alerted Americans United, which sent a letter to Jeffress cautioning him that his actions risked violating the Johnson Amendment, the federal law that protects the integrity of elections and nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring tax-exempt organizations don’t endorse or oppose political candidates.

“Your comments about how your congregation should vote in the next election raise serious legal questions,” wrote the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, then AU’s executive director. “If you proceed with your plan to use your church to defeat city council members with whom you disagree, you are placing the tax-exempt status of your congregation in jeopardy.”

Fast-forward about 13 years, and it was evident Jeffress hadn’t bothered to heed AU’s advice. By then, Jeffress was in a more prominent spot, pastoring Dallas’ First Baptist Church, an influential Southern Baptist mega­church that celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and has counted the late Rev. Billy Graham as a member.

In October 2011, the church’s website hosted two videos of Jeffress endorsing then Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the Republican presidential nod. One video featured Jeffress’ endorsement while introducing Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. The other video was of Jeffress’ appearance a few days later on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” during which Jeffress repeated his endorsement and also tried to do damage control over insulting comments he made at the summit about the religious beliefs of Perry rival Mitt Romney.

Americans United asked the IRS to investigate, noting that while Jeffress had the right to offer a personal endorsement, he couldn’t use his tax-exempt church’s website to engage in partisan politicking.

“Pastor Jeffress is trying to do an end-run around the law,” said Lynn. “The IRS should put a stop to it.” (It’s not known if the IRS took any action against Jeffress or his church.)

By the time the 2016 presidential election rolled around, Jeffress had learned his lesson – sort of.

Jeffress offered what many considered to essentially be an endorsement of Trump when he introduced the candidate at a January 2016 campaign stop at Dordt College, a private Christian college in Iowa.

“Although as a pastor I cannot officially endorse a candidate, I want you to know I would not be here this morning if I were not absolutely convinced that Donald Trump would make a great president of the United States,” Jeffress told the crowd before adding, “This nation will not survive another third term of Barack Obama in the form of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.”

A month later, at a Texas campaign event, Jeffress forecast what a Trump presidency would mean for evangelicals: “Donald Trump cares about and loves evangelical Christians. … I have met with Mr. Trump on several occasions, and I can tell you from personal experience, if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, we who are evangelical Christians are going to have a true friend in the White House. God bless Donald Trump!”

Jeffress was one of the earliest faith leaders to show overt support for Trump’s presidential bid. In September 2015, Jeffress was among about 40 evangelicals who met with and prayed over Trump at the candidate’s New York City office. Days earlier, Jeffress had delivered a prayer during a Trump campaign rally in Dallas: “Heavenly father … tonight we come before you thanking you for Donald Trump, who along with others is willing to selflessly offer himself for service to this nation, for no other reason than he desires to make America great again.”

Pastor Robert Jeffress leading President Donald Trump and other evangelical advisors in prayer in the Oval Office.

(Photo: Pastor Robert Jeffress, standing to the left of President Donald Trump, leads Trump's evangelical advisors in prayer in the Oval Office in September 2017. Credit: Screenshot from C-SPAN)

An evangelical Christian pastor and a thrice-married, casino-owning, real estate-dealing, reality television star may be an unlikely pair, but Jeffress and Trump have something in common: Both have a habit of making controversial remarks.

Jeffress many times has been called out for his anti-LGBTQ rhet­oric, using terms like “miserable life­style,” “filthy” and “degrading” to describe gay people. He called the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that granted nationwide marriage equality “the greatest, most historic, landmark blunder in the history of the United States Supreme Court” and “nothing short of an affront in the face of almighty God.” He also condemned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the organization’s support for transgender rights, asserting, “I’ve said often that the greatest threat to freedom of religion in America is not ISIS, it’s the Chamber of Commerce.”

Jeffress often lambasts church-state separation and religious freedom. He has blamed school shootings and the “implosion” of American society on Supreme Court decisions that struck down forced prayer and the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

He has likened to idolatry the Constitution’s First Amendment protections that give all citizens the right to believe, or not, as they choose and once remarked, “Any nation that chooses to publicly renounce the true God in order to embrace and elevate other gods is going to face God’s judgment.”

Jeffress also rejects the fundamental American principle that government must not favor or disfavor any religions: “It is impossible for the government to be neutral toward religion, neutrality is really hostility toward religion and especially the Christian religion.”

Many of Jeffress’ controversies have stemmed from his denigration of other faiths. When Jeffress endorsed Perry for president in 2011, he said he did so partly out of disdain for opponent Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.

“Mormonism is not Christianity,” he declared. “It’s not politically correct to say, but Mormonism is a cult.”

The ensuing firestorm led to an array of Jeffress media appearances that included a defense of judging a candidate by his or her faith – all while leaving the door open for him to use factors other than faith to select a candidate. “I believe I have been misquoted repeatedly as telling the GOP not to vote for Romney. I have never made such a statement; I realize I might very well end up voting for Romney if he is the Republican nominee,” he wrote in an October 2011 editorial in The Washington Post.

Sure enough, after Romney had defeated Perry for the Republican presidential nod, Jeffress’ support swung to Romney. A year after belittling Romney’s faith, Jeffress told his congregation that a vote for incumbent Barack Obama was a vote for the Antichrist.

“I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist. ... But what I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist,” Jeffress said during a pre-election sermon.

The 2012 election cycle was far from the first time Jeffress had insulted Mormonism, or other faiths, for that matter. In a 2010 interview on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Jeffress said, “Islam is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell. Mormonism is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell.”

He added: “Judaism – you can’t be saved being a Jew. You know who said that, by the way? The three greatest Jews in the New Testament: Peter, Paul and Jesus Christ. They all said Judaism won’t do it. It’s faith in Jesus Christ.”

Those remarks echoed a sermon he’d given in 2008: “God sends good people to Hell. Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hin­­duism – not only do they lead people away from God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell.”

Mormonism isn’t the only Christian denomination that Jeffress has likened to a cult – Roman Catholicism also has that dubious honor. In a 2011 sermon, Jeffress called the Catholic Church a corrupt version of Christianity that sprang from ancient Babylonian cults.

“Much of what you see in the Catholic Church today doesn’t come from God’s word. It comes from this cult-like pagan religion,” Jeffress said. “You say, ‘Well now, pastor, how can you say such a thing? That is such an indictment of the Catholic Church. After all, the Catholic Church talks about God and the Bible and Jesus and the blood of Christ and salvation.’ Isn’t that the genius of Satan?”

Jeffress’ condemnation of Judaism and other faiths led to widespread criticism after he was one of two controversial evangelical Christian pastors to be invited to lead prayers at the May ceremony commemorating the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Romney himself tweeted his disgust at Jeffress’ presence: “Robert Jeffress says ‘you can’t be saved by being a Jew,’ and ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.’ He’s said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.”

There were no apologies forthcoming from Jeffress or the Trump administration for Jeffress’ presence at the embassy, or for his insulting remarks about other faiths. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told Breitbart News he invited Jeffress and televangelist John Hagee “because they deserve to speak because they represented a community very much in support of what happened yesterday.”

The lack of remorse and attempts at justification were par for the course for the Trump-Jeffress relationship, although it’s usually Jeffress justifying Trump’s rhetoric, not the other way around.

Jeffress waved away questions about why evangelicals would stick by Trump amidst the allegations that he cheated on his wife with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. “Evangelicals know they’re not compromising their beliefs in order to support this great president,” Jeffress said during a Fox News interview in March. “And let’s be clear, evangelicals still believe in the commandment ‘thou shalt not have sex with a porn star.’ However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him.”

When Trump used the word “sh*thole” to describe African and other nations earlier this year?  No big deal, Jeffress told The Washington Post: “What a lot of people miss is, America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background. I’m glad Trump understands the difference between a church and [a] country. I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.”

Last October, when Trump was being widely criticized for his insensitivity toward Gold Star families, Jeffress showed up on Fox to defend the president and insult a Florida congresswoman who was speaking up for the grieving family of an American soldier who’d been killed in action. The same day as Jeffress’ TV appearance, Trump returned the favor by tweeting an endorsement of Jeffress’ latest book and calling Jeffress a “wonderful man.”

Jeffress’ unwavering support for Trump has raised his own profile – which has sparked a backlash as more people have learned of Jeffress’ past remarks denigrating other faiths, LGBTQ people and government neutrality toward religion.

But in an October 2017 interview with The Atlantic, Jeffress dismissed the criticism. “I think,” he asserted, “it was very clearly an attempt to discredit the president by discrediting his most vocal and visible evangelical spokesman.”