Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress went on television Friday evening to weigh in on reports circulating on conservative web sites that Pope Francis compared U.S. President Donald Trump to the Bible’s evil King Herod.
The Roman client king of Judea who scholars say died in 4 BCE is depicted in the Gospel of Matthew as ordering the execution of all male children 2 years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem because he viewed the newborn baby Jesus as a threat to his throne.
Meeting Dec. 5 with a group of 48 Jesuits from Southeast Asia during his apostolic visit to Thailand and Japan, the pontiff mentioned Herod while responding to a question about refugees in Thailand and how to live out a “ministry of hospitality.”
“The phenomenon of refugees has always existed, but today it is better known because of social differences, hunger, political tensions and especially war,” the pope said, according to the English version of La Civilta Cattolica, a Catholic journal published in Italian in Rome.
“For these reasons, migratory movements are intensifying,” he continued. “What is the answer the world gives? The policy of waste. Refugees are waste material. The Mediterranean has been turned into a cemetery. The notorious cruelty of some detention centers in Libya touches my heart. Here in Asia we all know the problem of the Rohingya. I must admit that I am shocked by some of the narratives I hear in Europe about borders. Populism is gaining strength. In other parts there are walls that even separate children from parents. Herod comes to mind. Yet for drugs, there’s no wall to keep them out.”
Breitbart reported the comment as a “thinly veiled condemnation of the U.S. president and his administration, suggesting that like a modern-day Herod, Mr. Trump separates families at the border while allowing drugs to freely flow into the country.”
After attending a White House gathering of evangelical leaders, Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, discussed the pope’s comment on Lou Dobbs Fox Business show Friday evening.
“King Herod is the one who tried to murder thousands of children, trying to get rid of Jesus,” Jeffress said. “President Trump has protected the lives of children in the womb, the most pro-life president in history.
“Herod wanted to extinguish Christmas by getting rid of Christ before the first Christmas,” said Jeffress, one of the president’s earliest evangelical supporters. “President Trump celebrates Christmas, has brought it back to the forefront of our country, and that means bringing Christ back as well.”
Although he did not mention Trump by name, Pope Francis would not be the first Christian to read the Bible story of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s plot to prevent the birth of a prophesized King of the Jews in light of the refugee crisis at the United States’ southern border.
A Nativity scene set up last weekend at a Methodist church in Claremont, California, depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees separated in cages similar to the Trump administration’s border separation policies. A photo of the creche went viral on left-leaning social media after news coverage including the Los Angeles Times.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee last week accused the Trump administration of misleading Congress and the public about the death of a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala in Border Patrol custody that occurred in May.
On Tuesday a federal judge blocked the administration from using billions of dollars in Pentagon funds for the construction of a border wall separating the United States from Mexico.
In his comments in Asia, Pope Francis said the phenomenon of global migration is compounded by war, hunger and a “defensive mindset,” which “makes us in a state of fear believe that you can defend yourself only by strengthening borders.”
“The Christian tradition has a rich evangelical experience in dealing with the problem of refugees,” Francis said. “If the Church is a field hospital, this is one of the camps where most of the injured are found. It is these hospitals that we need to go to most.”
Often called Herod the Great, the figure described in two whole book scrolls by the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is remembered for building projects including the temple in Jerusalem and the port city of Caesarea.
Scholars debate whether Herod’s massacre of the innocents actually took place or was used in Matthew as a literary device to highlight the similarity between Jesus and Moses, but extra-biblical sources testify to the tyrant’s paranoia and fratricide.
Emperor Augustus reportedly joked “it is better to be Herod’s pig than son,” suggesting that because Jews don’t eat pork, the pig had a longer life expectancy.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, observed by Western churches Dec. 28 and Eastern churches Dec. 29, commemorates the children slain by Herod in Bethlehem as the first martyrs.
Different liturgies number those killed at 14,000 and 64,000. By medieval times the number grew to 144,000. Modern estimates are that since Bethlehem was a rather small town, the total number of babies fitting Herod’s profile likely would have been closer to 10 or 12.
A member of Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory team, Jeffress said in Friday afternoon’s meeting in the Oval Office the president seemed upbeat and unfazed by House Democrats’ efforts to impeach him.
“This impeachment farce, it isn’t paralyzing the president, it is energizing him,” said Jeffress. “What he was focused on talking about this afternoon was record unemployment, record stock market, record regulations being pulled back and record number of judicial appointments. This is what the American people care about, and that’s why I believe that the longer the Democrats want to drag out this impeachment farce, the larger his margin of re-election is going to be in 2020.”
A frequent Fox News contributor, Jeffress also questioned the sincerity of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who last week snapped at a reporter for asking if she was proceeding with articles of impeachment because she hates the president.
“I don’t hate anybody,” she said. “I was raised in a Catholic house. We don’t hate anybody, not anybody in the world.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, deliberate hatred of a neighbor is a “grave sin” contrary to the virtue of charity.
Returning to the podium, the California Democrat said as a Catholic, she resented being addressed in a sentence using the word hate. “I pray for the president all the time,” Pelosi said. “So don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group said journalist James Rosen, who formerly worked as a Washington, D.C., correspondent for Fox News Channel, meant “no disrespect” when he asked the question.
Trump said he did not believe Pelosi’s claim that she prays for him, and Jeffress did not appear to disagree.
“You know, I find it interesting that she is so indignant about being accused of hatred, saying that it goes against her Catholic faith,” Jeffress commented on the exchange. “Well, what about her belief in unrestricted abortion? That certainly goes against her faith, and she doesn’t apologize for that, she celebrates her belief in the murder of the unborn.”
“I just find this religion of hers kind of strange and certainly hypocritical in places,” Jeffress said.