Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, has long been an ardent public supporter of Donald Trump. He recently preached that the Biden administration was “the ungodliest administration in the history of our country,” a continuation of ongoing remarks he has made from the pulpit and on Fox News that President Biden is immoral, Democrats ungodly, but Donald Trump “believes, yes, in law and order and justice, but he also believes in mercy.”
My BNG colleague Rodney Kennedy quickly and persuasively pointed out the illogic of comparing these two administrations and somehow finding Biden’s the more immoral, as well as spotlighting the anti-Catholic vitriol openly revealed in Dr. Jeffress’ dismissive reference to President Biden’s rosary and prayer practices.
But what interests me — and troubles me — is not the fact that a pro-Trump evangelical leader has doubled down on his investment, even in the medium of a Sunday sermon. Too many white Christian leaders continue to service the former president, and to judge from the sermon comments on Twitter and on YouTube, too many followers echo their skewed vision of what it means to be godly in America today.
None of that surprises, although it pains me. But as someone who writes, preaches and studies how we make ultimate meaning, I am fascinated by the unasked question that lurks at the heart of this clear disagreement about godliness: What God are we talking about?
I still remember the passage from the King James Version of my youth: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.” This is how I rendered Joshua 24:14-15 for The Voice dynamic translation:
So remember: fear the Eternal and serve Him sincerely and faithfully. Put away from you any gods your ancestors served across the Euphrates River or in Egypt, and serve only Him. If you decide that you’re not willing to serve Him, then today is the day for you to choose whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors bowed to in the land beyond the great River, or the gods of the Amorites whose country you possess. But as for me and my family, we will serve the Eternal.
“We’re reading the same Scriptures, Jeffress and I. But it seems abundantly clear to me that we’re not serving the same Eternal God — or even seeing the same God when we read.”
We’re reading the same Scriptures, Jeffress and I. But it seems abundantly clear to me that we’re not serving the same Eternal God.
The American Bible scholar Esau McCaulley writes in his fantastic book Reading While Black that the sort of God we imagine explains a lot about why and how we serve that God. It’s essential, he says, for example, for us to recognize that God didn’t choose the Egyptians. He chose the enslaved Hebrews. Thus, the God revealed to us in Scripture is a liberator, and whatever else we imagine that God does or is has to be in communion with that primary identity or we’re imagining a false God.
In this season, we’re also hearing the lessons of Advent — the words of the prophets about justice and change, John the Baptizer’s teaching that God is throwing down the high and mighty, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s song that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” These Scriptures reveal a divine presence who seeks to refine and purify human beings so that we can love and truly serve that God and each other, a God of cosmic and personal change, a God bringing justice for the lowly, not the mighty.
On the second Sunday of Advent, I preached at the American Cathedral in Paris about how I can understand why someone who looks like me — a comfortable white Christian American — might not want to choose this version of God, this understanding of godliness:
“I disagree with all my being with Jeffress and his ilk about whether the white privilege and white supremacy reflected in Trumpism are godly.”
Those teachings from Isaiah and the Baptizer and the Blessed Virgin shake me, and they threaten to remake me. They are not necessarily words I want to hear. There is a part of me that prefers to be served rather than to serve. That wants to grasp white-knuckled to the top rung of the ladder. That wants to avoid real change.
Sometimes I fear I’d very much like to have a God who likes things the way things are — and me just the way I am.
And that is so clearly not the liberating God revealed to us in the Scriptures, not the refining and reforming God of Advent.
I disagree with all my being with Jeffress and his ilk about whether the white privilege and white supremacy reflected in Trumpism are godly. And yet I can understand — from a purely human standpoint — why they might choose a God who leaves them exactly the way they are.
Whom will you choose? Well, as for me and my family, we will seek to serve the Liberating God, the God of Advent, the God of compassion and justice. As for Jeffress?
Well, perhaps it will not surprise you to discover that the 14,000 members of First Baptist Dallas are “honored to host” former president Donald Trump this Sunday at their Christmas service. Without a twinge of guilt or of irony, First Baptist’s website proclaims that “President Trump is known for his love for Christmas and what it represents. We are thrilled to have him join us this Sunday morning.” The former president will deliver a Christmas message, and I suspect those gathered will be delighted to hear it, although I also suspect that it will not be a message of love, hope, joy or real justice, since that is not the sort of god they have chosen.
Greg Garrett is an award-winning professor at Baylor University. One of America’s leading voices on religion and culture, he is the author of more than two dozen books, most recently In Conversation: Rowan Williams and Greg Garrett and A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation. He is currently administering a research grant on racism from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation and writing a book on racial mythologies for Oxford University Press. Greg is a seminary-trained lay preacher in the Episcopal Church and Theologian in Residence at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris. He lives in Austin with his wife, Jeanie, and their two daughters.
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