Is Robert Jeffress a “Bigot” for Claiming that Jesus is the Only Way to Heaven?

 

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.”

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.

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.

Yes, There are Evangelicals Who Believe the Jerusalem Embassy Is a Bad Idea

Jerusalem

Back in December, when Trump first announced that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, evangelical theologian Gary Burge (Wheaton College and now at Calvin Theological Seminary) wrote a piece at the Atlantic titled “You Can Be an Evangelical and Reject Trump’s Jerusalem Decision.”  The piece is worth revisiting today.

A taste:

The key to understanding this perspective is to recognize that these conservative evangelicals are building a bridge from ancient biblical Israel to the modern secular State of Israel. So, promises made almost 4,000 years ago to Abraham apply to the modern Israeli state. “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you,” God says in Genesis 17:8. For these evangelical interpreters, a verse like this one is not just something ancient; it provides a political mandate for Israel’s privileges today. And Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse,” originally intended as a word of protection for Abraham’s tribe, now can become a mandate for anyone living today. We are obligated, the argument runs, to bless modern Israel. In the U.S., blessing Israel means recognizing its sole ownership of Jerusalem.

These evangelicals’ perspectives stem partly from a high regard for the Bible and its story about the fate of the Israelites, which has led to an outsized fascination with Judaism. They believe that Israel has a unique place in history as God’s special people, so Israel deserves deferential treatment—and Jerusalem deserves the same. For some, Israel enjoys an exceptionalism that sets it apart from the entire world. There are even evangelicals who believe that promoting the importance of Jerusalem is one more building block in the fulfillment of prophecies that sets the stage for the Second Coming of Christ. The average conservative evangelical is filled with a tangle of commitments that are often tough to sort out. She just knows that if Israel wants something—in this case, Jerusalem—Israel deserves to have it.

Numerous evangelicals like me are less enamored of the recent romance between the church and Republican politics, and worry about moving the U.S. embassy. For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. We view the ethical teachings of the scriptures as primary, and recognize that when biblical Israelites failed in their moral pursuits, they were sorely criticized by the Hebrew prophets and became subject to ejection from the Holy Land. Amos 5:24 shows that even the use of the Jerusalem Temple can be problematic to God: “Take away from me [God] the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Many of us look at modern Israel today and see a country that Amos would barely recognize. How, we wonder, can anyone build a bridge from ancient Israel to modern Israel today? Amos would hardly recognize in Tel Aviv a city based on biblical ideals.

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.

Who Preached This Morning in First Baptist Church, Dallas?

First Baptist

As we noted yesterday, Robert Jeffress is in Jerusalem today preparing to the deliver a prayer at the opening of the new American embassy.  This means that he did not preach today at First Baptist Church–Dallas.

According to my sources, Jeffress chose Southern Baptist evangelist Bailey Smith to preach in his absence.  Bailey’s website boasts that “as a pastor, he has led more people to Christ than any other Southern Baptist pastor in an equal period of time in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.”  He was a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Outside of Southern Baptist circles, Smith is probably best known for saying that “God doesn’t hear the prayers of a Jew.”  Oh, the irony!  You can’t make this stuff up!

Robert Jeffress, Dispensationalism, and the American Embassy in Jerusalem

This morning court evangelical Robert Jeffress appeared on Fox and Friends to talk about Monday’s opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem.  Jeffress will say a public prayer at the event.

I watched Jeffress’s appearance on Fox and Friends and it led me to embark on a small Twitter rant.  Here it is:

I touch on some of this stuff in my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Don’t forget to pre-order at your favorite bookstore.  The book releases on June 28.

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Who is Larry Huch and What Does He Have to Do With Ted Cruz?

HuchOne of the things that I did not mention in my Religion News Service piece on Ted Cruz was his support for the nation of Israel.  In addition to his promise to defund Planned Parenthood, defend religious liberty, destroy Obamacare, defend the Constitution, etc., he also says that he will move the American embassy to Jersualem, “the once and eternal capital of Israel.” Cruz is the Senate’s strongest supporter of Israel and seems to be the only one of the GOP candidates talking about this.

In my Religion News Service piece I mentioned Larry Huch, the co-pastor (with his wife Tiz) of New Beginnings Church in Irvine, Texas.  I spent some time reading about Huch today.  His theology is very interesting and unique in evangelical circles.

At first I thought that he was the kind of Messianic Jew that I used to run into a lot as a young evangelical.  Messianic Jews are Christians who believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They usually embrace an end-times theology known as dispensationalism.  I do not have time to go into all the theological details of dispensationalism here (check out Brendan Pietsch book Dispensational Modernism), but one of its central tenets is that God has separate plans for the nation of Israel and the Christian church established on the day of Pentecost in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2.  In other words, God has not abandoned Israel and thus not all of the Old Testament promises in the Bible apply to the post-Pentecost church age.  God will restore the Old Testament nation of Israel one day and Jesus Christ will return to Jerusalem as the promised Messiah and usher in a literal 1000 year reign on earth.  (Think Hal Lindsey Late Great Planet Earth or Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series).

It seems as if Larry Huch has been influenced by dispensationalism, but his approach is also different.  He is not a Messianic Jew because he is not Jewish.  According to this video, he believes Jesus will rapture all Christians and take them to Jerusalem one day. But he also wants to unite Christianity and Judaism.  Unlike dispensationalism, he does not see a distinction between God’s work with Jews and God’s work with Christians.  He blames the early Church for “turning our eyes from Jerusalem” and the Old Testament. He believes that Christians need to follow Old Testament laws, including laws about diet and cleanliness.

In another sermon Huch says that Christians should write Deuteronomy 6 on the doorposts of their houses.  He seems to want to restore the Church in the book of Acts before the Apostle Paul brought the gospel to gentiles.  In other places, Huch and his wife Tiz talk about “building bridges” between Christianity and Judaism as a means of reviving Judeo-Christian culture in the United States.

Huch is a very entertaining preacher.  His church is ethnically and racially diverse and he condemns racial discrimination.  He urges his congregation to remember that a blonde-haired and blue eyed Jesus is the product of a European-influenced Christianity that has taught Christians over the years to reject their Jewish religious heritage.  If Jesus was an observant Jew who followed the teachings of the Torah, then his followers today should do the same.

In this video and this video Huch talks about the “end time transfer of wealth” that he and Rafael Cruz believe  Ted Cruz will have a role in bringing about.

Here is Huch talking about Jerusalem in Jerusalem:

And now here is Ted Cruz’s message to Larry and Tiz Huch thanking them for their support of Israel:

I think we may have just uncovered the source of an important part of Ted Cruz’s stump speech.