Is Robert Jeffress Really a Bigot?

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On Monday, Robert Jeffress, the controversial pastor of the massive First Baptist Church in Dallas, offered the invocation at the dedication of Donald Trump’s new American embassy in Jerusalem.

When it was revealed that Jeffress would be praying at the event, the pundits pounced. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP candidate for president, led the way.  In a tweet he criticized Jeffress for claiming that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew” and “Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.”

If Romney had more than 280 characters to work with, he could have also noted Jeffress’s belief that Hindus “worship a false God” and Muslims are “evil.”

Indeed, Jeffress is a bombastic, loud-mouthed preacher who likes to peddle his brand of evangelicalism on Fox News and other politically conservative news outlets.  He was one of the few evangelical leaders to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy during the GOP primaries when there were Christian Right candidates in the field—Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, to name three—who did not come with Trump’s immoral baggage.

On Monday evening, Jeffress appeared on Fox News to defend himself against charges of bigotry.  Watch it here:

While Jeffress did not say anything negative about non-Christian religions during this appearance on Fox, he firmly re-asserted his belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion.  This, he proclaimed, has been the teaching of the Christian church for more than two thousand years.

Jeffress is correct. And Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard and a columnist at Bloomsburg News, agrees with me.  Here is a taste of his piece “This Isn’t Bigotry. It’s a Religious Disagreement“:

Do those statements really make Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a bigot? All he is doing is echoing an almost 1,800-year-old doctrine: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It can be traced to St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died in the year 258. The basic idea is that Jesus Christ came to save those who believe in him — and not those who don’t.

This view doesn’t reflect the latest in pluralism. The Catholic Church treated it as dogma for more than a millennium, but has backed away in recent decades. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, expressed skepticism about the view in a 1964 sermon. “We are no longer ready and able,” he said, “to think that our neighbor, who is a decent and respectable man and in many ways better than we are, should be eternally damned simply because he is not a Catholic.”

But plenty of Christians of many different denominations still believe this teaching in one way or another.

Even Mormons have their version. “Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5),” as the official website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts it. That’s one reason Mormons practice posthumous baptism of those who would otherwise be unsaved: so that good people who were not members of the LDS church can achieve salvation.

To be clear, I have no dog in the Christian theological fight about whether good people who aren’t Christians can be saved — much less which version of Christianity is necessary to achieve salvation. That’s because I’m not a Christian.

My point is rather that I can’t, and shouldn’t, feel offended by someone telling me that I won’t be saved because I don’t have the right religious beliefs.

Most religions in the monotheistic tradition think they are right and others are wrong. That’s normal. It isn’t a reason to consider those who hold other beliefs to be bigots.

Read Feldman’s entire piece here.

In age in which the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel are scorned by a culture that celebrates tolerance as one of its highest virtues, Jesus’s claim in John 14:6 that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” seems like bigotry.

But why would we expect Jeffress, a Christian pastor, to believe that there is more than one way to God?  I am sure that Mitt Romney, if pushed to explain his own religious beliefs, would say something similar about the exclusive nature of the Christian faith as understood through his Mormonism.  Let’s face it, Christians are not going away anytime soon.  Thomas Jefferson learned this lesson the hard way.  The great man of the Enlightenment from Monticello predicted in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Woops. So much for Enlightenment progress.

So rather than wishing evangelicals away, I think it is time for Americans to think seriously about how to live together amid what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as our “seemingly irresolvable differences.”  The practical application of Inazu’s vision will not be easy and people like Robert Jeffress will make it even more difficult.

I have been critical of Jeffress’s embrace of Donald Trump.  Just scroll through the blog and you will see what I mean.

As an evangelical and a historian, I have been critical of the Dallas pastor’s attempt to fuse God and country in a desire to “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots.  It is a form idolatry and it is based on bad history.

As I told a writer who interviewed me today, Jeffress’s undying support of Trump and his Christian nationalism weakens the witness of the Christian Gospel–the “good news”–and alienates the very people who may be most in need of it.

Moreover, Jeffress’s extreme dispensationalism makes him insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow evangelicals in Palestine.  He seems completely oblivious to the very real possibility that he and his fellow court evangelicals are being played by a man who may not survive his presidency without their support.  As Thomas Friedman recently put it, the ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Jerusalem embassy was a “Republican mid-term pep rally disguised as a diplomatic event….This was meant to fire-up the far-right religious base of the Republican Party.”

When Jeffress does announce that salvation only lies in Jesus Christ, he may have the history of Christian doctrine on his side, but he makes such pronouncements with a culture warrior spirit that reflects the worst form of fundamentalism.

If secularists need to learn how to live with the millions of evangelicals who believe that salvation lies only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then evangelicals to need to learn how to engage those with whom they differ with “gentleness and reverence” that will cause them to wonder about the “hope that lies within.”

And I could go on.  (Actually, I do go on here).

5 thoughts on “Is Robert Jeffress Really a Bigot?

  1. John, no argument, but it’s hard to say one doesn’t affect the other. If the God you worship plans to torture non-Christians for eternity (which is the belief of many, if not most, Christians), then why would you respect and empathize with that person? And one might even consider it a duty to stop them from sinning for their own good.?

    At some point, we have to stop separating the ideology of Christianity from its results. Right-thinking Christians lik yourself want to think that the court evangelicals are an aberration of proper Christian behavior. But I’ve come to realize that what I’ve been taught in churches all these years isn’t benign, it is the main cause for the way people act. Can you get that?

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  2. This is one of those “I see the larger point and I agree but disagree with the headline” moments. Friedmann is definitely right to point out that being exclusionary in your theology isn’t in and of itself bigoted, but some of Jefress’ comments on Islam in particular have often slipped into what I think could be called such. One could easily say that Islam is a heresy that prevents its followers from going into heaven without also saying that it promotes pedophilia or is particularly violent as a religion, for example. In those instances Jeffress is definitely speaking more from a place of misinformed intolerance than from any sense of religious disagreement.

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    • “Being exclusionary” is an interesting way to put it. The fact is that many evangelicals — even polite ones — want to exclude some portion of the population from having the same rights as everyone else.

      They don’t see it as bigoted, because they believe that their bigotry is justified because they base it on the Bible, but of course it is.

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      • Paul: The idea that Jesus is the only way to heaven is a theological statement that someone like Jeffress has every right to make. (Although I am not very thrilled about the way he makes it). To deny fundamental civil rights to people based on religion is a completely different matter.

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