I wrote this early last week and never got the chance to place it somewhere. Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will recognize it as a compilation of a couple of blog posts I wrote in the wake of the dedication of the new Jerusalem embassy. –JF
Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
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 seems like bigotry.
Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, learned this hard way. When Jeffress’s critics learned that he would be praying at last week’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, they recalled some of the Southern Baptist’s previous remarks about the exclusive claims of Christianity.
Mitt Romney led the charge. In a tweet he criticized Jeffress for saying 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 moral baggage.
On the evening of the embassy dedication, Jeffress appeared on Fox News to defend himself against charges of bigotry. While he did not say anything negative about non-Christian religions during this appearance, he firmly re-asserted his belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion.
The belief that salvation comes through Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, Jeffress proclaimed, has been the teaching of the Christian church for more than two thousand years.
He is correct.
And Noah Feldman, law professor and public intellectual at Harvard, agrees. In a recent column at Bloomsburg News, Feldman argued,
“All Jeffress 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…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.”
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, evangelical 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: “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, 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.
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. 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 dispensationalism makes him insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow evangelicals in Palestine. He seems oblivious to the very real possibility that Donald Trump is playing him and his fellow court evangelicals, the born-again Christians who frequent the Oval Office and flatter the president much in the same way that the King’s courtiers did in the Renaissance-era.
As New York Times columnist 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 lies only 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 a dark and angry brand of conservative evangelicalism that has little to do with the Prince of Peace.
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 need to learn how to engage those with whom they differ with “gentleness and reverence” that will cause them to ask about the “hope that lies within.”