The *Believe Me* Book Tour Comes to Dallas

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Last Thursday night the Believe Me book tour visited Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  The Center for Presidential History served as host.  Thanks to Brian Franklin, Assistant Director of the Center, and Jeff Engel, Director, for the invitation.  And thanks to Ronna Spitz for coordinating all the details.  They did a great job promoting the event in the greater Dallas area and as a result more than 200 people showed-up!  The crowd was largely sympathetic, but there were clearly some Trump supporters in the room who did not agree with everything I said in the lecture.  And no, Robert Jeffress did not come to the lecture (I have now been asked that a couple of times), but the first question from the audience was from a man who occasionally attends Jeffress’s church (First Baptist–Dallas) and was trying to figure out how the Dallas megachurch pastor reconciled his biblical sermons with his Fox News pundit.

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The SMU student newspaper covered the event here.

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On Wednesday, October 17 I  will be at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.   Stay tuned.

The Court Evangelicalism of Robert Jeffress: A Guide

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Stephen Young of the Dallas Observer has assembled some of court evangelical Robert Jeffress greatest hits.   Here is a taste:

First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress deserves some credit. Motivations, politics and decency aside, he picked the right horse way back in the summer of 2015 when he decided to back then-candidate Donald Trump’s nascent presidential campaign.

For his trouble — Jeffress frequently worked “Make America Great Again” into invocations and Trump rallies and shows up to lay hands on the president whenever the news calls for that sort of thing — the pastor has achieved a kind of celebrity. He’s on Fox News almost weekly and gets exponentially more news attention than he did in the good old days, back when he was accusing President Barack Obama of paving the way for the Antichrist or proclaiming that the Catholic Church was an example of the genius of Satan.

Jeffress has also carved out a niche as the president’s personal excuse Rolodex.

This week, as the water in which the president’s political future sits begins to simmer, if not boil, Jeffress has been back in action. Monday, he attended a special dinner for Trump’s evangelical supporters at the White House before making the rounds again on Trump’s behalf.

Starting with two examples from this week, here are Jeffress’ best, or worst, excuses for the president:

1. Jeffress explains why evangelical support for Trump isn’t wavering, despite Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen admitting in federal court that Trump was aware of and helped direct payments before the 2016 election to two women with whom he had affairs.

“Well, it’s really not that hard to figure out when you realize he is the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary in history, and that includes either Bush or Ronald Reagan. I think that is why evangelicals remain committed to this president and they are not going to turn away from him soon,” Jeffress told Fox News Monday night after the meeting. “We have to understand these are still allegations against the president, so I’m not going to judge the president on these things. But even if they were true, some of these allegations, I mean, obviously, we don’t support extramarital affairs, we don’t support hush-money payments, but what we do support are these president’s excellent policies.” 

Read the rest here.

And here is an even more extensive list of Jeffress’s greatest hits.  Just scroll down.

Or you can find our take on Jeffress in this book:

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Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

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St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

First Baptist Dallas “Christian America” Billboard Comes Down

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Last week we wrote about the billboard in Dallas advertising Robert Jeffress’s upcoming sermon at First Baptist-Dallas: “America is a Christian Nation.”  Read our post here.

The billboard company pulled the signs down.

Here is a taste of Tre Goins-Phillips’s piece at Independent Journal-Review:

Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor and one of the Trump administration’s evangelical advisers, is facing criticism over billboards his church erected declaring America a “Christian nation.”

In fact, after a bit of online outrage, including an editorial from The Dallas Morning News, the billboard company contracting with the church, Outfront Media, decided to pull the signs down, describing the declaration — “America Is a Christian Nation” — as “anger provoking,” according to a statement from the church that was obtained by IJR.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, seemed to take issue with the billboards, too. In a statement to the newspaper, Rawlings said he doesn’t mind people “being proud of the Christian tradition in America” but added it’s important for the faith-based community to promote “a city of love versus a city of hate.”

And Metroplex Atheists, a branch of the national group American Atheists, is staging a protest at First Baptist Church to confront Jeffress’ patriotic message.

Read the rest here.

If a baker is allowed to deny services to same-sex couples, then I guess a billboard company can reject a message that they find offensive.

In my opinion, this billboard should come down because it makes a claim based on bad history.  It is fake news.  I wrote a book about this a few years ago and some of these themes will also appear in my latest book:

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The “Powerful Threads” That Run Through the History of First Baptist Dallas

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I am sure much of what court evangelical Robert Jeffress has tweeted here is true.  I rejoice with all those women and men who experienced redemption and changed lives through the ministry of First Baptist Church–Dallas.  I know some of you.

But I am also a historian.  It is my calling.  It is what I do.  So let me note that there are other “powerful threads” that run through the history of First Baptist Dallas.  Let’s start with political scientist Tobin Grant‘s 2016 Religion News Service piece on longtime pastor W.A. Criswell.  The piece draws on the research of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis.

Here is a taste:

Whatever role pastors and other clergy had during the fight against slavery and Jim Crow, there is a specific history that Jeffrees is ignoring. Obviously, his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was not on the side of abolitionists. More notably, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas was a prominent segregationist who long saw the fight against integration as part of the gospel.

W.A. Criswell led the church from the 1940s to the 1990s. During this time, the church tripled in size to 22,000 members, including notable members such as Billy Graham. Criswell’s election to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1968 marked the beginning “battle” of the conservative takeover of the denomination.

The election of Criswell was surprising. In the 1968 convention, the SBC voted to integrate its churches and welcome all races to membership. Criswell, however, was the most prominent segregationist in the SBC.

In 1956, Criswell spoke at the State Evangelism Conference in South Carolina. Against instructions to stay clear of segregation, Criswell gave a fiery sermon that linked the fight against integration with evangelism. All Southern Baptist pastors should, according to Criswell, speak out against those who were advocating integration.

Criswell did not mince words. He railed against both the National Council of Churches and the NAACP as those “two-by scathing, good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”

He even used racist humor to make his points: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.”

Criswell saw integration an attack on both state rights and democracy by carpetbaggers. Even more so, it was a blow to Southern Baptist religious liberty: Churches had the right and the responsibility to keep their congregations segregated.

Segregation was best for blacks and whites, Criswell said. Blacks, he argued, would never be able to excel, teach, or lead in a congregation of whites. Instead, they should stay in churches with other blacks. Segregation also limited miscegenation. And that, Criswell warned, was going to cause problems for everyone.

Read the entire piece here.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress’s “Freedom Sunday” is Coming

It’s that time of year again.  Time for Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and a prominent court evangelical, to hold his annual “Freedom Sunday.”  This year’s celebration of God and country will take place on June 24.  Last year’s celebration got a lot of attention.

Robert Wilonsky writes about the city of Dallas for the Dallas Morning News.  He took the above picture while sitting in traffic.  And then he wrote an article about Jeffress at the Morning News.  Here is a taste:

The newly planted billboard touts a “Freedom Sunday” worship service June 24 at the downtown church and hosted by the man who serves as one of President Donald Trump’s main spiritual advisers — a job that appears to be part propagandistpart contortionist. According to a video Jeffress prepared for Freedom Sunday, there will be “inspiring patriotic worship” and “a salute to our armed forces,” followed by the Fox News’ commentator’s “special message” advertised on that billboard. 

There will be indoor fireworks, too, which is not how they concluded the Last Supper. And first-time visitors to First Baptist will receive a copy of Jeffress’ book Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days, a grim piece of work about “the coming collapse of our nation,” according to Mike Huckabee’s foreword.

Consider this your semi-regular reminder that Jeffress, Fox News’ go-to religious authority, is among this city’s most divisive voices. Nothing he says shocks me anymore. I mean, this is a preacher — a follower of Christ — who actually said, “America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background.” 

Which is the opposite of Hebrews 13:1. And, I think, the rest of the Bible. 

Read the rest here.

Dallas Civil Rights Activist Tapes “95 Theses” to First Baptist Church

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Rev. Peter Johnson, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who now lives in Dallas, just taped his 95 Theses to the doors of court evangelical Robert Jeffress’s First Baptist Church.

If you are not familiar with the Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, click here to learn more.

Here is a taste of the story in Dallas Magazine:

Hoofing it through downtown a bit ago to grab lunch, I ran into the Rev. Peter Johnson, near the corner of St. Paul and San Jacinto streets. He had a sheaf of papers under his arm and a cameraman at his elbow.

“Hey, Peter, what are you up to?” I asked.

“I just taped my 95 theses to the doors of First Baptist,” he said, handing me an 8-page stapled copy. “Channel 8 was there, and we were filming, too, until a security guard made me leave.”

I looked over at the church — or, rather, at the crazy fountain and St. Paul Cafe. One wonders what Martin Luther would have to say about all that and about Robert Jeffress himself, the senior pastor at First Baptist, the one who scurries to television in defense of every Trump utterance, including his recent “shithole” remark. 

“Did you get every door?” I asked Peter.

“Yup.”

“Including the ones to the original sanctuary?”

“Sure did.”

“Were you tempted to use nails, like Martin Luther did it? Oh, I guess you needed tape. Too many glass doors.”

“I didn’t want them to get me for destroying property,” Peter said. “I still thought they might arrest me. I told my personal lawyer not to bail me out. Just let me stay in jail. My wife was giving me all kinds of hell this morning.”

I think he was a little disappointed that he didn’t get to take a ride in the back of a squad car. We parted ways after I promised to write something about what he’d just done. As for his 95 theses, they are a mix of scripture and quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.

Read the rest here.

What Was Being Worshiped Yesterday at First Baptist Church in Dallas?

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Yesterday was “Freedom Sunday” at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.  The pastor of First Baptist is Robert Jeffress.  He is a Trump supporter, Christian nationalist, and prominent court evangelical. As the pictures attached to this tweet indicate, it was a day of patriotic celebration in the church sanctuary.

People waved American flags during the service.

The last time I checked, the waving of the American flag was a sign of support or loyalty to the nation.  Jeffress had no problem allowing such an act to take place in a church sanctuary–the place where Christians worship God as a form of expressing their ultimate loyalty.  Patriotism is fine. Flag-waving is fine.  But I wonder if any of the congregation felt uncomfortable that all of this took place in the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning.

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There were fireworks.  Yes, fireworks.  Somehow the pyrotech crew at First Baptist figured out a way to pull this off without burning the place down.  I assume that these fireworks did not represent the pillars of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness in the Old Testament. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone during the service connected these patriotic fireworks to God’s leading of his new “chosen people”–the United States–through the desert of extreme religious persecution). I also don’t think the fireworks were meant to represent the “tongues of fire” present on the day of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 2.  (Also, from what I am able to tell from the church website, First Baptist did not celebrate Pentecost Sunday on June 4, 2017).

It also looks like the congregation of First Baptist sung the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land.”  I am guessing they did not sing all of the original verses.

How can this not be a form of idolatry?

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Leave Dubya Alone!

George W. Bush is taking a lot of heat for this:

If you think that Bush’s dancing and moving to the beat of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was inappropriate for a memorial service, check out this piece at The Atlantic.

Here is a taste:

It has come to the attention of our editorial board—a group of august, Harvard-educated, middle-aged Boston Brahmins in tweedy suits sitting at heavy wooden desks and smoking fine pipe tobacco * —that there’s a controversy afoot involving “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To wit, former President George W. Bush is being criticized for swaying just a little too zestily during a rendition at Tuesday’s memorial service in Dallas for five police officers killed by a gunman…

Let us (we tweedy band of editors) stipulate that this is hardly the most important or momentous news of the day. Let us stipulate further, however, that as the periodical that first published Julia Ward Howe’s abolitionist poem, The Atlanticfeels a special obligation to weigh in on the matter.

So here it is: Eh, let the guy be.

Look, any criticism delivered can only pale in comparison to the greater penalty Bush faces in this case, which is for anyone to watch this video, in which he looks like—to use the scientific term—a doofus. The true star of this clip is First Lady Michelle Obama, who looks at Bush with what looks like affectionate shade and helpless embarrassment as he rocks out, even as the rest of the dais stands somberly. But when the choir hits the chorus (“Glory, glory hallelujah!”) both Obamas seem to get into the act, swaying along with Bush.

Two points here: First, it’s not the case that getting in the spirit and even laughing are incompatible with memorializing the dead, a point made eloquently by Obama’s own rendition of “Amazing Grace” at a memorial in Charleston for those slain at Emanuel AME Church. Second, it’s the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” not the “Battle Dirge of the Republic.” The tune was borrowed from a religious camp meeting song, and even before Howe wrote her lyrics, Union soldiers hadadopted it as a marching song, under the name “John Brown’s Body….”

In short, it’s a song made for movement, not stiffness.

In conclusion, leave Dubya alone.

Read the entire post here.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #85

Southern Methodist University

Want to get some context for this post? Click here

I am writing from my hotel room in Dallas across the street from the beautiful campus of Southern Methodist University.  As noted in a previous post, last night I gave a lecture to about 75 students and faculty entitled “The American Bible Society and the Creation of the Christian Nationalism.”   The lecture was drawn from Chapter One and Chapter Two of the project. Some of you who have been following along will remember that these were the two chapters that served as my “sample chapters” for potential publishers.  Last night was the first time I shared my ABS research in a public forum of this nature and I got some good questions from the audience that will force me to do a better job of refining my arguments.

As I spent time editing the lecture on the plane from Philadelphia to Dallas I realized that the prose in these chapters still need a lot of work.  What I thought was in pretty good shape in August now seemed overly wordy and full of extraneous information that was unrelated to my argument.  

On a related matter, the demands of my academic life at Messiah College combined with my visit to Dallas made for a very unproductive writing week.  While I continue to do background reading for my chapter on the ABS benevolent empire, I have still not started writing the chapter.  Here’s hoping for a return next week to a more regimented writing schedule.  


Most of the research is now in place for the story of the ABS through World War I.  It is now a matter of putting that research into accessible prose.  Stay tuned.