Robert Jeffress, after seven years of supporting a politician who routinely breaks most of the Ten Commandments, now wants to speak a word in favor of the commandments.
In a Fox News opinion piece, “God’s Cure for the World’s Chaos Starts with a Few Simple Rules,” the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas says the answer to all that ails us is to follow the Ten Commandments.
This is a man who has spent the last seven years promoting and defending Donald Trump’s “fundamental nihilism,” “destructive spirit of anarchy and chaos,” and what rhetorical scholar Robert Ivie dubs a kind of “salvation by demolition.”
Further, Jeffress has interpreted biblical passages that mysteriously link the Bible with Trump’s “America First” political policies.
“How a Baptist preacher can offer a cure for chaos after his political involvement has been chaos bordering on anarchy in partnership with Trump boggles the imagination.”
How a Baptist preacher can offer a cure for chaos after his political involvement has been chaos bordering on anarchy in partnership with Trump boggles the imagination. Donald Trump took the freak show of American politics and made it the main event as Jeffress trailed behind singing, “God bless Donald Trump.”
Jeb Bush first called Trump “the chaos candidate,” and he nailed it.
Jeffress, in his pre-inaugural sermon for Trump, read from the book of Nehemiah and told Trump God is in favor of walls. He has called Trump the most moral president in our history, while others have condemned Trump as a serial liar, demagogue and criminal.
Now, Jeffress wants us all to follow the Ten Commandments.
Not 10 slogans
While the Ten Commandments have been with us for centuries, they possess no magical powers to save the world. No sooner did the Jews receive the Ten Commandments than they start disobeying them. The commandments certainly didn’t save the Jews from centuries of suffering, death and near genocide.
Television journalist Ted Koppel, in an address to Duke University graduates in 1987, offered a better reading of the Ten Commandments: “The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable human behavior. Not just for then or now but for all time. … The tension between those commandments and our baser instincts provides the grist for journalism’s daily mill.”
Koppel also said an incredibly prophetic word: “We have actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us.”
Our own slogan-saturated political culture has fallen hook, line and sinker for the truth-challenged slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
While Jeffress doesn’t seem to believe the Ten Commandments apply to Trump, he wants the rest of us to turn the commandments into another form of the American positive-thinking genre. Following the Ten Commandments will make us happy as the people appear to be in those Jack Daniels and Bud Lite commercials. It is a simplistic, individualistic and almost naïve approach.
Reasons to mistrust Jeffress
There are reasons to question Jeffress and his reading of the Bible.
He, for instance, interprets Romans 13 to say government’s sole purpose is to protect its citizens. That has led him, according to historian John Fea, in Believe Me, to defend Trump’s border wall, oppose the DACA program (the Obama-era initiative that protects the children of illegal immigrants who were born in this country from being deported to their parents’ home country), fight against abortion, argue for the protection of ministers from the IRS through the repeal of the so-called Johnson Amendment, suggest Muslims should be kept out of the country, oppose same-sex marriages, and claim Trump has a biblical mandate to kill the leader of North Korea if he poses a threat to United States security. (How does he equate this to “Thou shall not kill”?).
When Trump was asked his favorite Bible verse, he did not mention the Ten Commandments. Instead, he went with “an eye for an eye.” Could there be a biblical verse that is more anti-Ten Commandments?
Jeffress, Trump and the commandments
Jeffress has been such a persistent defender of Trump’s actions — even his most questionable ones — that Texas Monthly’s Michael S. Moody dubbed Jeffress “Trump’s apostle.”
Jeffress publicly defended Trump’s “hush money” payments by inventing an 11th Commandment just for Trump: “Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star,” he said. “However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him.”
In other words, Trump could rip the Ten Commandments to shreds and burn them at Mar-a-Lago, and Jeffress would insist that was irrelevant.
Jeffress seems oblivious when he insists that “what we do support are this president’s excellent policies.” That those policies violate the majority of the Ten Commandments — destroying truth, decency, hospitality, national unity, racial progress and diversity — fails to register.
I do not have the space in this article to counter in depth the problematic claims Jeffress makes about the Ten Commandments, but it’s important to notice he individualizes the commandments. This move toward individualism denies the corporate, communal nature of the commandments.
I confess that, like theologian Stanley Hauerwas, I have little use for the current fascination with individual salvation in either its conservative or liberal guises. Rather, salvation is being engrafted into practices that save us from those powers that would rule our lives, making it impossible for us to truly worship God.
Jeffress trivializes the Ten Commandments as if they are positive suggestions of how to be happy, wealthy and healthy. Instead, they are religious practices grafted into our lives — communal practices that save us from those powers that would rule our lives and make it impossible for us to truly worship God.
“On what basis does he think a nation of people who have turned the truth into lies, vices into virtues, and greed into a good would ever be able to follow the Ten Commandments?”
He simplifies the Ten Commandments as if they are the 10 Rules to a Great Country, yet the country he imagines is not built on Mount Sinai but is more of a Tower of Babel. On what basis does he think a nation of people who have turned the truth into lies, vices into virtues, and greed into good would ever be able to follow the Ten Commandments?
Perhaps most troubling, Jeffress idealizes the Ten Commandments as if he believes we are capable of obeying all them. Here we run up against a philosophical truth made by Wittgenstein: The real difficulty in philosophy is one of will.
What is hard is to will ourselves to accept things that are true, honorable and acceptable that we don’t want to accept, because there are other things we want. It takes moral strength, effort, courage and commitment to the first commandment (to love God) to demonstrate this in our corporate lives together.
Foundation for community
No doubt Jeffress makes numerous true statements in his article, but in his ardent zeal to protect Trump and align the Bible with right-wing fundamentalism, he is in danger of confusing the kingdom of God with the keeping of 10 laws.
If a person obeys the Ten Commandments, this will lead to a better life. Learning not to covet will do something for our sense of contentment. Learning not to steal will do something for our sense of honesty. Not committing adultery will do something for our relationships. If we follow the Ten Commandments, it will do something for our moral weakness, keep us ethical and free of lies and make us better people.
It is possible to keep the Ten Commandments and not be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Let us remember the Ten Commandments are borrowed from our brothers and sisters of Israel. Only within evangelical Christianity have they become a part of the “politics of the church.”
Thus conservative evangelical legislators demand they be posted in every public school classroom in schools they refused to adequately fund and where they want to limit the truth of American history.
Like these politicians who break the commandments while seeking to enforce them on others, Jeffress is a preacher talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.
No matter how hard Jeffress tries, he can’t use the Ten Commandments as a religious bandage to heal a nation in intensive care because his political hero has created a culture of fear, hatred, anger and revenge that promotes bigotry in the pursuit of power.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor and writer in New York state. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy.
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