Is Robert Jeffress Really a Bigot?

jeffress

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).

Frank Rich on Trump’s “Horror Show” in Jerusalem

hagee jeffress

Here is a taste of Frank Rich‘s piece at New York Magazine.  I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Rich, but he is right about this:

Yes, Trump was sending a message with the horror show he orchestrated in Jerusalem. But the message had nothing to do with his administration’s purported goal of seeking peace in the Middle East — a cause that has been set back indefinitely by his provocative relocation of the American embassy. Trump’s message, per usual, was for his own selfish political aims. It was targeted at his base, whose most loyal members are right-wing Evangelicals. And so the ceremony included not only a prayer from Jeffress, whose disdain for Jews is matched only by his loathing of Mormons and Muslims, but a benediction from John Hagee, an Evangelical crackpot notorious for telling NPR’s “Fresh Air” that God created Katrina to punish New Orleans for hosting “a homosexual parade.”

For this segment of Trump’s base, bigotry (including against Roman Catholics, in Hagee’s case) is a Godly virtue and anti-Semitism is not inconsistent with Zionism. Israel is the presumed site of the Second Coming, after which everyone who refuses to give themselves up to Christ will be subjected to another Holocaust. Some of this base is grateful for the previous Holocaust as well, which is why Hagee has said that Hitler was “part of God’s plan” for the Jews and for Israel. This is the theological brand of anti-Semitism whose secular expression could be found in Charlottesville where white-supremacist thugs among what Trump called “very fine people on both sides” could be found chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

Read entire piece.

Richard Mouw to His Fellow Evangelicals: “What you’re cheering in Jerusalem is shameful”

Palestine Christians

Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, chides the evangelicals who are cheering the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and ignoring the death toll in Gaza.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion News Service:

God is not indiscriminate in handing out blessings to Israel. God wants the leaders to promote the cause of righteousness, which has to do with, among other things, how they treat “the stranger in the land.” The ancient Hebrew writers were consistent in emphasizing his point: And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

If we want God to “bless” Israel we should keep calling the present Israeli government to treat the Palestinians as those who are “born among you.” We do Israel no favors by praying at its celebrations while ignoring the grave injustices taking place not far away.

The evangelicals who send angry messages quoting the biblical passage about blessings and curses are right to insist that God both blesses and curses nations for what they do. And the time is long past for us as evangelicals to talk seriously together about God’s concern for justice in the Middle East. And while we are at it we can also talk, as evangelicals, about God’s concern for “the stranger” who is within and at our own American borders. It is always important to attend to these things. They are matters for which divine blessings and divine curses are at stake.

Read the entire piece here.

Friedman: “It’s like diplomatic pornography from beginning to end”

Take 6 minutes to watch this.

Thomas Friedman tells it like it is on Hamas, Israel, and Donald Trump.  He holds nothing back and he is right.

Key lines:

“[Hamas] has a lot to answer for.”

“The whole thing is a tragedy.  It’s like two bald men fighting over a comb.”

“The embassy event was really just 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.”

“Trump didn’t do the ‘art of the deal,” he did the art of the giveaway….Trump gave away the most valuable diplomatic real estate in the Middle East treasure-box of the United States and he gave it away for free.  Believe me, in Jerusalem they are laughing at him.  In the Arab world they are laughing at him.  They can’t believe what a sucker he was to take that bait and give this away for free when he could have used it for leverage to truly advance the peace process.”

Why Some Evangelicals Love Israel

hagee jeffress

I turned my weekend tweetstorm into a piece for Religion News Service.

Here is a taste:

Because of Trump’s actions, dispensationalists believe the blessing of God will come upon America. The Jerusalem decision reinforces the idea that America is a Christian nation. This decision makes America great in the eyes of God. It also makes Trump great in the eyes of those American evangelicals who visit the White House regularly to consult with the president, the flatterers and sycophants whom I have called the “court evangelicals.”

Jeffress, Evans and other court evangelicals claim that they were influential in Trump’s decision to move the Israel embassy. If this is true, we can say with certainty that United States policy in the Middle East is now heavily influenced by dispensational theology.

Read the entire piece here.

Mennonites, Israel, and Palestine

West Bank

Lisa Schirch is a Mennonite who runs the Tokyo-based Toda Peace Institute and serves as a senior policy advisor at the Alliance for Peacebuilding in Washington D.C.   Over at The Mennonite, Schirch has written a very interesting piece about Mennonites and Israel.  Historically, Mennonites have supported Palestinian rights and have criticized Israel as an “abusive colonial power.”  Schirch, however, calls her fellow Mennonites to task for taking such a narrow position.  Here is a taste:

Many Israelis and Palestinians are eager for outsiders to demonize the other side. Mainstream media and Christian Zionists often portray Israeli policies as unquestionably noble. News media project images of Palestinians as terrorists and often fail to provide any history to help understand Palestinian grievances.

Mennonites have done important work to support Palestinian rights. Unfortunately, many Mennonites have significant gaps in how they understand Israel, Jews and Judaism. Too often Mennonite advocacy for Palestinian rights carries antisemitic tones that portray Israel as simply an abusive colonial power. Portraying Jews as only voluntary colonialists delegitimizes the millions of Jews who came to Israel as refugees fleeing persecution. In most Mennonite churches I have observed, little to nothing is taught on Mennonite roles in the Holocaust and antisemitism, how Jews understand Israel, or on Judaism or Jesus as a Jewish rabbi.

The 2017 MC USA Resolution on Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine identified important steps in addressing Mennonite participation in a long history of antisemitism and in seeking justice for Palestinians. This more balanced approach recognizes the truth and trauma in both Palestinian and Jewish narratives and writes Mennonites into the story of Israel and Palestine.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Evangelicals in the Palestinian West Bank

Bethlehem

As evangelicals watch the dedication of the American embassy in Jerusalem and cheer, let’s not forget that there are evangelical brothers and sisters in the West Bank who are “defiantly Palestinian.”

Here is a taste of Dan Rabb’s piece at Religion News Service.  I also linked to this piece in my weekend tweetstorm.

Awad has made it his mission to show American evangelicals that his community exists by engaging directly with American evangelical leaders. The best way to get Palestinian Christians on Americans’ radar is by entering into Christian fellowship with them, Awad says.

And at the Baraka Church’s Sunday morning service, evidence of these efforts abounds. Scattered among the Palestinian worshippers are members of evangelical congregations in Nashville, Tenn.; Toronto; and New Jersey — easily identifiable by the black earpieces through which Danny Awad’s father translates the Arabic prayers into English. Special prayer books provide both English translation and transliteration of the Arabic so the North American guests can sing along. The service includes a popular American worship song, led by Awad’s 11-year-old nephew. The Americans sing along while the locals mostly clap their hands with the music.

Many visitors are surprised to find Christians practicing this kind of worship in the West Bank. Pastor Marty Duren of Nashville came to the Baraka Church with another American pastor who had developed a relationship with Awad.

“Palestinian Christians are just totally absent from American evangelical thought,” he says. “I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience I think most don’t think about or know that there are Christians in the West Bank at all.”

Read the entire piece here.

Michael Limberg on Historians and War at the 2015 AHA

Michael Limberg checks back in.  Here is what he was up to on Saturday afternoon at the 2015 AHA–JF
The panel I attended this afternoon was likely the most emotionally intense and fraught panel I can remember witnessing.  This is perhaps understandable, as this was the session sponsored by MARHO (The Radical Historians’ Organization) and Historians Against War (HAW) titled “What is the Responsibility of Historians Regarding the Palestine/Israel Conflict?”  It was a packed room; most of the attendees seemed to be affiliated with HAW but there were a scattering of unaffiliated others like myself.  HAW has introduced several resolutions for tomorrow’s AHA business meeting that would criticize the state of Israel for suppressing the academic freedom of Palestinian intellectuals.  They hope to get these resolutions approved for general discussion and a vote by all AHA members.  
The presenters (Leena Dallasheh, Linda Gordon, Joel Beinin, and Barbara Weinstein) introduced several different positions on both why and how a professional organization such as the AHA or historians individually should take a moral and political stance on these issues.  Several other academic organizations, including the Modern Language Association (MLA) and Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) have recently attempted to discuss similar resolutions or even debated the possibility of a “cultural boycott” of Israel as part of a Boycott, Divest, andSanction movement.
Their discussions have generated substantial contention and criticism both from within their organizations and in the wider media.  The session today also rankled a number of attendees.  Some who disagreed with the premise that Israel deserves to be criticized and others disagreed that historians in general (particularly non-Middle East specialists) had any special or professional obligation to act.  Tempers flared a little in the audience comments period, though everyone managed to keep it civil. 
While this particular debate might not be on the radar for many readers of this blog, I was fascinated to see the range of opinions expressed at this session about the role of historians as public intellectuals, informed citizens, and teachers.  Like some others at this session, I am hesitant to say an academic organization dedicated to such a wide umbrella of scholarly exchange and professional development is the best place to mount a political critique.  On the other hand, I am also committed to teaching my students that their historical skills (gathering and analyzing evidence, contextualizing, challenging accepted wisdom) can be used to understand and shape their actions for the political and ethical challenges they face today. 
I  also thought of discussions over the last few years in the Conference on Faith and History, of which I am also a member, on the relationships and responsibilities of scholars to their churches and the religious public.  I left the session today with even more questions about professional responsibility than I had when I entered, but it was a very valuable experience.  I’m curious to hear what comes of the measures proposed at the business meeting.
Otherwise, my conference swag count to date includes: three free books, two free pens, innumerable handouts and lists of available publications, several bookmarks, and a goodly supply of crackers and cheese (which totally counts as swag if you’re a grad student trained to seek out free food at any opportunity).  I also took the chance to wander a little in the rain tonight to see a bit of New York City.  My current home in rural Connecticut is just down the road from cornfields and cows, so taking in Times Square and the hustle and bustle of a weekend evening in Manhattan was a good adventure.  
On Sunday I’m looking forward to the Conference on Faith and History breakfast and a couple of religious history panels, one on Kate Bowler’s work on the Prosperity Gospel and another in the afternoon on American Evangelicals Abroad.