Jeffress warns parents not to send their kids to Baylor’s ‘infidels’

As news of Baylor University’s “possible” sanction of a campus group for LGBTQ students spread across the nation, the Texas Baptist school continued to be criticized from both sides of the debate.

The high-profile critique of the Waco, Texas, school played out at the same time an older sex-related drama was unfolding in a Houston courtroom.

On Thursday, May 20, in the 234th Civil Court of Harris County before Judge Lauren Reeder, attorneys presented opening statements in a case brought by a former Baylor student who said she was sexually assaulted in her dorm room by former Baylor football players in 2017. The woman has sued the university and the former players, claiming the university failed to protect her and had failed to address a history of sexual assaults on campus.

The high-profile critique of the Waco, Texas, school played out at the same time an older sex-related drama was unfolding in a Houston courtroom.

The scandal that ensued from this and related charges of sexual assault by football players led to the ouster of Baylor football coach Art Briles and ultimately Baylor University President Ken Starr. The university says it has instituted more than 100 changes in policies and procedures to address the problems.

The Houston Chronicle reported on the opening day of the trial, noting that Baylor defense attorney Tom Brown told the court the school controls the factors that it can, but sexual assault among students is “practically impossible” to prevent. “What happened that night between those four adults behind that closed door was not in any way caused by Baylor University,” he said.

That statement came just a few days after Baylor regents and administrators touted their Statement on Human Sexuality as a safeguard against possible acceptance of an official campus group for LGBTQ students. That statement emphatically addresses student sexual behavior.

A news release announcing the possibility of a new LGBTQ student group said Baylor “continues to place a priority on care for all students while rooted in its Baptist beliefs and traditional biblical understanding of human sexuality.” That means “sexual relations of any kind outside of marriage between a man and a woman are not in keeping with the teaching of Scripture.”

Mohler and now Jeffress on the attack

As previously reported by BNG, Southern Baptist Convention seminary president Al Mohler was among the first to pounce on Baylor, accusing the school of “institutional capitulation disguised as care.”

Mohler was then joined by Robert Jeffress, the outspoken pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, who said on the Todd Starnes Show that Baylor’s faculty is full of “infidels” who teach “anti-Christian” ideas.

Starnes is a far-right online radio host who previously wrote for Baptist Press, the denomination’s media outlet. His show’s website warns faithful listeners that they must subscribe to his daily emails because they can no longer count on social media not to censor their conservative views.

Former President Donald Trump in 2016 tweeted this photo of himself with Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress.

Jeffress, who was a member of Donald Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board and a never-failing advocate for the former president, did not appear to be equally troubled by Trump’s lewd comments and behavior and the multiple accusations against him of sexual assault.

After the Access Hollywood tape surfaced with recorded evidence of Trump making lewd comments about sexually assaulting women, Jeffress was unmoved.

“I said at that time, with Trump sitting next to me, I would not necessarily choose this man to be my child’s Sunday School teacher,” Jeffress said. “But that’s not what this election is about.”

Following Criswell’s legacy

In critiquing Baylor, Jeffress pulled out a favorite word of his legendary predecessor at First Baptist Dallas, W.A. Criswell: “Infidel.” Jeffress grew up at First Baptist under Criswell and then attended Baylor, where he earned a bachelor of science degree.

A search of the website containing all of Criswell’s sermons shows at least 80 instances of the pastor using the word “infidel” in published sermons.

W.A. Criswell with image of First Baptist Dallas behind him.

One of those occurred in 1977, when Criswell preached a sermon at the SBC Pastors’ Conference on “The Infallible Word of God.” The sermon was a broadside against modern scholarship and liberal educators. He warned that “these kids in our church go away to school, and they come back, and they say to me, ‘I’ve given up the faith. I have learned in the university that that book out of which you preach is nothing but a collocation of legends and myths and fables.’”

Similarly, Jeffress told Starnes there are professors at Baylor who try to convince young Christians to question their faith in God: “Our church has sent students down there for years who have their faith completely torn apart by infidels in the religion department.”

This tirade against Baylor was prompted by the university regents cracking open the door to the possibility of allowing a narrowly defined group of LGBTQ students to have a campus organization — something university administrators have denied for more than a decade.

Yet because of this possibility, parents should keep their kids away from Baylor, the Dallas pastor warned.

“What they teach and the underlying philosophy is anti-Christian,” Jeffress told Starnes. “And I don’t think any true Christian parent who wants their kids to have a Christian education would allow their child anywhere near Baylor University.”

“I don’t think any true Christian parent who wants their kids to have a Christian education would allow their child anywhere near Baylor University.”

He added: “Like any good magician, the Baylor administration has mastered the art of distraction and deception. … What this really is, Todd, is a fraternity for LGBTQ students. The fact is they thought a support group might give the impression that they were trying to help these students. If they were really trying to lead these students out of homosexuality and out of gender confusion, that would be a good thing. But what they’re really going to do is to affirm their right to engage in that kind of ungodly behavior.”

Although Jeffress didn’t specify any Baylor professors who are “anti-Christian,” he connected the LGBTQ news with the view of his predecessor to say the entire school should be avoided.

“Being filled with Christians doesn’t make you a Christian university,” Jeffress said. “It is your viewpoint and what you teach. I say either go to a distinctively Christian university or go to a completely secular university and get a better rate for doing it.

“At least your child will understand the battle lines and what they are instead of being confused by people who claim to be a Christian but act in a completely different way,” he concluded.

A Baylor professor responds

Robert Baird, professor of philosophy emeritus at Baylor, wrote an op-ed for the Waco Tribune-Herald challenging Jeffress.

Robert Baird

“It would be interesting to ask Jeffress to name one infidel in the whole of Baylor University, much less in the religion department,” Baird wrote. “This Jeffress assertion is reminiscent of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s claims in the 1950s to have had a list of 200 members of the State Department who were Communists. The number on his list continued to drop: 70, then 50, and finally 10, but he never actually named one. So, who are the infidels in the Baylor religion department, Pastor Jeffress? He surely knows that there are none.”

The emeritus professor noted Baylor’s regents and administration were responding to the urging of the Baylor Faculty Senate, the Baylor Student Senate, key donors and “thousands of Baylor alumni” who requested that the university reconsider its anti-LGBTQ student group stance.

Baird then related his own experience as a student at Baylor after graduating from Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1955.

“It would be interesting to ask Jeffress to name one infidel in the whole of Baylor University, much less in the religion department.”

“These teachers and many others at Baylor introduced me both to the world of ideas and to the responsibility of thinking critically about those ideas,” he said. “Eventually, I came to see these Baylor teachers as part of a larger and longer academic tradition going all the way back to Socrates who argued that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Socrates viewed himself as a gadfly with a God-given task of stimulating individuals to think, to evaluate critically the principles guiding their lives. And that is what Baylor did for me: stimulating me to think seriously about matters that matter.”

At Baylor, he learned and then later taught that the mind is “a gift of God” and the disciplined development of the mind is “a moral and religious obligation.”

LGBTQ student perspectives

The kind of open-minded education Baylor aspires to deliver still eludes students who identify within the LGBTQ community, some of them have explained over the last week.

Jake Picker serves as vice president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, the LGBTQ student group that has been denied an official campus student group charter for a decade. He is one of the defendants in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education that names Baylor among 25 faith-based schools that are allowed to receive government funding while discriminating against gay, lesbian and transgender students.

The Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which is coordinating the lawsuit, tweeted out Picker’s photo and a response to the Baylor regents’ news, saying Picker “has often felt unsafe and unprotected for a number of reasons – including the explicitly anti-#LGBTQ+ student policies in the school’s handbook.”

That sentiment is shared by Justin Tidwell-Davis, a 2009 religion graduate from Baylor who now lives in Seattle.

“As a queer Baylor alum, I have to say that Baylor is continuing to exploit its LGBTQ students by making this announcement to make the institution seem more loving without actually having changed anything,” he said. “Baylor is merely considering the possibility of allowing the charter of some kind of LGBTQ student group that aligns with Baylor’s policies and beliefs that LGBTQ people should be single and celibate for life, and not advocate for their own civil rights.”

“As a queer Baylor alum, I have to say that Baylor is continuing to exploit its LGBTQ students by making this announcement to make the institution seem more loving without actually having changed anything.”

He expressed particular frustration at the university’s public documentation of the regents’ action, which he said “does nothing to explain the mental health disparities that young LGBTQ people face. By only mentioning suicidality rates, and not the root causes like a lack of resources, risk of family rejection, religious rejection, lack of supportive social environments, hostile political environments, and a lack of legal protections that their peers enjoy, Baylor is again pathologizing LGBTQ students in order to pat itself on the back and call itself loving and caring.”

The university’s Statement on Human Sexuality, which was adopted during his time as a student, “filled me with a persistent state of dread and anxiety,” he said. “Would I be disciplined if I went on a date? Held another man’s hand?  Shared a kiss? What if someone reported me for doing so off campus or out of town? Would I be expelled? How would I explain that to my parents? Would I be disowned? All these were very real fears that I carried while I was a student.”

In response to these fears, he submitted to counseling through a Texas Baptist church that amounted to the now-discredited conversion therapy, claiming to “cure” gay and lesbian people of their sexual orientation.

“I was there in 2002 and 2007 when a Baylor professor scrubbed a message of support for LGBTQ students, simple as ‘God loves you’ with a rainbow off the sidewalk with his foot. I was there when Baylor power-washed these messages from the sidewalk. The message I internalized: ‘We will erase you.’”

Tidwell-Davis cited multiple other examples of students he knew who were disciplined because of their sexual orientation.

“Since graduating in 2009 and coming out in 2011, I’ve connected with former Baylor students who have shared their stories of being harassed and mistreated by other students, by their professors in the classroom, or at church,” he said. “Being subjected to exorcisms by other students, shunned, told they were mentally ill or demonically possessed for being LGBTQ, friends who didn’t report sexual harassment and assault because they feared that they would be punished for having been assaulted by someone of the same-sex.”

And like Jeffress — but from the opposite viewpoint — Tidwell-Davis worries about what students are learning at Baylor. “I feel sadness, anger and pain that Baylor is shaping generations of students who are going out into the world with the belief that discrimination against LGBTQ people is a Christian imperative and a right.”


Related articles:

Baylor walks the line on LGBTQ student group as critics pounce from the right

25 faith-based schools named in LGBTQ discrimination case against Department of Education

Baptist schools seek waiver from LBGT discrimination ban

LGBTQ-friendly student group, alumni vow to fight for inclusion at Baylor

From Massachusetts to Missouri, faith-based schools seek to shield governance under religious exemptions

Robert Jeffress: Trump’s alleged affair with porn star ‘totally irrelevant’ to his evangelical base

Evangelicals lay hands on Donald Trump

If you would have marched with Dr. King, where are you now?

Editor’s note: In October 2017, Freddy Haynes of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas wrote an open letter to Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, asking his cooperation in fighting racism in America. Haynes is a nationally known figure working for social justice; Jeffress is a nationally known supporter of President Donald Trump and his administration’s policies. Nearly three years later, the letter to Jeffress remains unanswered.

I greet you in the name of our Lord and Liberator, Jesus Christ. I have been moved to write you this letter because our country — which Maya Angelou aptly called “these yet to be United States” — has accelerated her descent into destructive division. A spiritual eclipse of decency, honesty and integrity has left this country in the frightening darkness of emboldened racism. Hate and greed have grown bolder.

Frederick Haynes

Recently, you used your significant platform as a guest contributor on Fox News to throw gasoline on the fires of racial conflict. You drew a dangerous connection between the NFL controversy and North Korea — whose leaders have engaged in a war of words with our president.

“These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they’re also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking the knee like they would be in North Korea,” you said to Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt. Of course, “earn” is the operative word, since they haven’t been given any money, and clearly you think these players aren’t free to think for themselves and to protest.

“And I think tens of millions of Americans agree with President Trump when he says they ought to be called out for this,” you continued, arguing there is “a better way to protest social injustice without disrespecting our country.”

Unfortunately, like most who make that claim, you didn’t tell us how. That suggests there are no preferred methods of protest from your privileged perspective. Protests for justice and equity are always disruptive because, as Martin Luther King Jr., reminded us, social change does not “roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” Change takes place through discomfort. Protests, even peaceful ones, are uncomfortable.

Sadder still, you didn’t cite the reason for the protests you denounced: the slaughtering of unarmed Black folk by cops. You didn’t call these actions evil or disrespectful. The courageous athletes who take a knee don’t disrespect the flag or the national anthem. The flag is disrespected when we fail to honor our pledge of allegiance to “liberty and justice for all.” The flag is disrespected whenever Black bodies are unjustly haunted and harassed by officers in blue.

Your words hurt. They are morally irresponsible. They border on blasphemy. You fail to see the fundamental contradiction in your argument. You would be shot in the head in North Korea for taking a knee to pray and preach your version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I would not want that for you. Don’t you see that Black people don’t have to go to North Korea to be victims of state sanctioned murder?

Unarmed teen Jordan Edwards will never earn millions of dollars in the NFL. He wasn’t in North Korea when he was shot and killed by a cop in Balch Springs, Texas. Neither was Clinton Allen there when an officer of the law in Dallas shot him. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was nowhere near North Korea when he was shot and killed less than three seconds after an officer of the law exited his vehicle and executed him in a park. Walter Scott was running from a police officer who shot him in the back and manipulated the scene to cover his crime. Yet another brokenhearted Black mother lost her son; still more devastated Black children lost their father. Scott wasn’t shot in North Korea, but in North America.

I could go on and on. I hope you get the picture by now. Killing Black people in the name of the law has aborted — a word I know you appreciate as a pro-life advocate — Black lives at an epidemic rate.

“The policing system serves as the frontline of a criminal justice system that is often criminal, racist and unjust.”

The policing system serves as the frontline of a criminal justice system that is often criminal, racist and unjust. This unjust system has made America — not North Korea — the most incarcerated nation on the planet.

The NFL players you viciously attacked are protesting racism and social injustice, particularly in the police use of the outlawed Chokehold, a powerful new book by Paul Butler you should pick up. They are speaking out against the spread of The New Jim Crow, an instant classic you should read of mass incarceration that keeps America from becoming a “more perfect union.” No wonder Michael Eric Dyson articulated our heartbreak in his great book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Please read it.

Our nation is now reaping the whirlwind of social turmoil that it has sown in the wind of unrepentant racism, systemic injustice and white supremacy. Too often white churches have been complicit in this tragedy with their appalling silence. Modern day prophet Jim Wallis says that’s “because they’re more white than Christian.”

Several years ago you graciously accepted an invitation to be interviewed on my radio show, Freddy Haynes Unscripted. I was sincerely shocked when you affirmed the rightness of the civil rights movement at the end of our conversation and declared that had you been around you “would have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Now I’m wondering which Dr. King you were referring to. It must have been the sanitized myth of the “apostle of nonviolence” that America created in order to fit her narrative of exceptionalism. Were you speaking of marching with the Dr. King who thundered “I Have A Dream” at the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? That’s usually the convenient Dr. King Americans are comfortable with. I would remind you that before he eloquently articulated his dream, he narrated our nightmare as a “drum major for justice.”

Do you recall this section of his prophetic poetic proclamation: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

“If you would have marched with Dr. King then, you should be standing with our courageous athletes now against the ‘unspeakable horrors of police brutality.'”

If you would have marched with Dr. King then, you should be standing with our courageous athletes now against the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Since it is impossible for you to march with Dr. King, you should take a knee with former San Francisco 49er star Colin Kaepernick and Seattle Seahawks star Michael Bennett, who are taking a stand against the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Sadly, and sinfully, these unspeakable horrors have terrorized our communities since the birth of this nation. The slave patrols, Black Codes, the convict leasing system, Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark reflect the use of policing as a weapon of oppression.

I will share something with you that I never talk about. My best friend, the late Marvis P. May, and I, both graduated from the now defunct, but never dead, Bishop College in Dallas. We decided one year, while attending summer school at Bishop, to visit your prestigious First Baptist Church, then considered the largest church in the United States.

First Baptist’s pastor, W.A. Criswell, had pastored and preached to presidents. He had also at one point been a staunch defender of segregation. Fortunately, he changed his theological stance. This was the summer of 1981. Marvis and I were warmly welcomed and received by the greeters and ushers. We enjoyed the experience and were happy to say that during our college matriculation we had visited the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas.

After the benediction, members of First Baptist continued to bless us with their kindness and engaging fellowship. After exchanging courtesies, Marvis and I went to retrieve the car we had borrowed from a fraternity brother. When we exited the parking lot, we mistakenly turned the wrong way down a one-way street. We immediately corrected our course and drove in the direction of the impressive gothic structure.

That’s when a police siren from behind us arrested our attention. Through the rear-view mirror, I could see the police officer pointing, telling us to pull over. I intentionally parked in front of First Baptist hoping that this would be a pleasant and not deadly stop.

The officers got out of their vehicle and aggressively approached us. Both of us were nervous. We were told, in rather vulgar terms, to get out of the car. No, they didn’t ask for my license and registration. Immediately, we were handcuffed and bent over our car. The officers weren’t satisfied. We were moved and told to get on the sidewalk face down. Honestly, we were pushed to the ground. I still recall the pain I felt from the knee of the officer in my back.

All this was taking place in front of the church where we had just worshipped. Marvis asked, “Why are we being held?” The cops ignored our question and instead barked at us, “Shut up until I tell you to speak, nigger.”

I was hurt and humiliated. Embarrassment and anxiety clouded my emotional skies. Surely, they wouldn’t do anything to us in front of this church.

I grew angrier by the second. There were still worshippers filing out of First Baptist. They didn’t allow our predicament to interrupt their walk to their cars. People we had just worshipped with simply glanced at us as they continued on their way.

Marvis and I were both dressed in suits, but, contrary to the advocates of respectability politics, our fine clothing didn’t stop the police from making us “eat the sidewalk.” Our sharp dress didn’t cause our fellow worshippers at First Baptist to stop and intervene in the sweltering sun of a Dallas July summer afternoon. Like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Heroic Samaritan — I refuse to say “good” Samaritan as if all the rest were bad, similar to how we have more recently pitted “good” Negroes against the masses of bad Black people — folk just passed us by “on the other side” without helping.

In hindsight, I wonder what conclusions were drawn by those we had worshipped with, those who had warmly received us, as they passed by on the other side? What did they see when they saw us, dressed in suits, fresh from worshipping in their sanctuary, but handcuffed with our faces to the hot sidewalk? Did they see our humanity stamped with the image of God? Did they see the Imago Dei, or the Imago Negro?

And what do they, and you, see now? What do you see as Terrence Crutcher is killed by an officer even though his hands are up? As angry as I was at the cops for stopping us because we “looked like we were up to no good” — yes that is the “scientific” rationale offered to us by our violent pursuers — I was most angry at those I had just worshipped with who passed by on the other side.

Thankfully, a courageous and kind gentleman emerged from the worship facility of First Baptist and decided to ask what was wrong. He proceeded to tell the police officers that we had just worshipped with them. The officers were shocked. They asked, “Are you sure it was these people?” The man firmly said “yes!” The officers, attempting to justify what they did, responded, “Well, maybe they just look like someone we were looking for?”

They helped us up from the sidewalk. Our suits weren’t nearly as dirty as our worship experience had become; our spirits were now stained by this embarrassing experience. The man who was kind enough to put his privilege on the line for us went back into the sanctuary. We got in our borrowed car and silently drove back to campus.

“Will you choose to pass by on the other side and pontificate from your perch of privilege about athletes disrespecting the flag or national anthem?”

I am sharing this humiliating and heartbreaking episode from my life because it offers you a metaphorical choice with real ramifications. Will you choose to pass by on the other side and pontificate from your perch of privilege about athletes disrespecting the flag or national anthem? Will you choose to use your privilege as the pastor of one of the largest and most historic churches in the country and do like the church member who intervened on our behalf? He didn’t rush to judgment about us. He used his privileged whiteness to empathetically enter into our predicament and, as a result, our predicament was transformed.

Pastor Jeffress, if you would do as the anonymous member did, we would begin to transform a justice and policing system that is destroying lives, breaking up families and hurting communities. Will you make that “pro-life” move?

You have boldly declared that racism is a sin. I agree with you. God hurts when God’s children are mistreated because of how God created them. Black people in our country live with this mistreatment every day. We experience racism from individuals and institutions, through micro-aggressions and systems.

The policing and criminal justice system is most vicious because police officers have the power of the state behind them. I’ve done more than one funeral in this country where I’ve tried to comfort a family whose unarmed child or father was killed by a police officer who was not held accountable.

Please understand why the football players are protesting before you attack them. You’ve never had to give your children “The Talk.” You don’t know the feeling of wondering, when the police stop you, if this is a life or death stop. Your privileged skin has ensured that your life always matters.

“In light of your unequivocal statement that “racism is a sin,” I’m inviting you to move from declaration to demonstration.”

In light of your unequivocal statement that “racism is a sin,” I’m inviting you to move from declaration to demonstration.

You and I should invite Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett to Dallas and listen to them. Let’s have a constructive conversation about what we can do to ensure that America is truly a place of “liberty and justice for all.” It would be a powerful statement for you and I to invite both of them and come up with solutions to the problems of the policing and justice systems that oppress people of color in our country.

Dr. King, who you would have marched with, lovingly chastised the Christian church of his day for being thermometers and not thermostats. I invite you to use your prestigious and privileged platform to fight against racial injustice.

You said racism is a sin. You’re right; now I invite you to not just “talk about it, be about it.”

Frederick Douglass Haynes III serves as senior pastor of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas. He is a graduate of Bishop College with a degree in religion and English. He earned the master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He later earned the doctor of ministry degree from the Graduate Theological Foundation, where he was afforded the opportunity to study at Christ Church, Oxford University in Oxford, England. His dissertation, “To Turn the World Upside Down: Church Growth in a Church Committed to Social Justice” reflects his commitment to faith based social activism.

Related articles:

Racists don’t get to determine who’s racist

“OK, we live in a racist society. What do we do next?”

When we forget our history, institutions do the sinning for us

What I’ve learned from race conversations with refugees and immigrants

There’s a double standard on pastors and politics

Imagine a prominent white Baptist pastor taking to cable news to make a case for Joe Biden and then appearing at rallies to campaign for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. All hell would break loose. And that pastor would soon be accused of splitting the church and likely lose church members.

So how, then, does Robert Jeffress get away with his never-ending campaigning for Donald Trump? And for that matter, how does Al Mohler, president of the flagship Southern Baptist seminary, get a pass when in an April podcast he vowed to vote for Republicans the rest of his life: “If you have any association with any version of historic Christianity or any link at all, then you’re going to be more Republican than Democrat on the political spectrum.”

If any white male seminary president said the same thing about voting for Democrats for the rest of his life and associated the Democratic party exclusively with God’s agenda, that school would lose funding and students and the president likely would be fired.

But not so with Jeffress and Mohler. Is this not a double standard? Perhaps a double standard only is a bad thing when neither of the standards suits your liking.

Meanwhile, I have pastor friends in churches that think they are progressive who are being skewered by angry congregants because the pastors are “talking too much about race.” In this moment, when race is the national conversation, these church members don’t want to be challenged by biblical teachings that make them uncomfortable. Apparently, they want to come to church to hide from the inconvenient truths of the world around them.

I have pastor friends in churches that think they are progressive who are being skewered by angry congregants because the pastors are “talking too much about race.”

Ever since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, churches have been firing or running off pastors who “talk too much about race” — as though they have departed from preaching holy Scripture.

As someone who has worked with a church personnel committee for nearly 17 years, I’ve got to wonder what the personnel committee meetings are like at First Baptist Church of Dallas. Does anyone there ever raise a concern that their pastor has pulled up the welcome mat of the church for more than half the county’s population that doesn’t vote Republican? Does anyone worry that the church has become so identified with a political agenda that it might sow division? Does anyone worry about the church’s tax-exempt status being jeopardized by worship services that look like campaign rallies? Does anyone question the pastor’s blatant mistreatment of Scripture?

I know my church’s personnel committee would be having those kinds of discussions if any of our pastors took such a bold and partisan political stand.

Remember also that not all church member complaints carry equal weight in the real world. Church members with money who threaten to leave a church get more attention — not that they should — because other lay leaders know the church can’t afford to lose them. So those with the gold get to determine what’s told.

Yet for some pastors like Jeffress, “being political” seems to bring in money and members.

There’s another reason this double standard thrives in American Christianity today, and it has to do with a false narrative that has been spun for 40 years. A cardinal rule of communications is that the person who tells the story first gets to define the narrative. That’s why when crisis or scandal hits a church or a business or an institution, that organization must get its message out first and define the discussion. And this is exactly what the Religious Right has done in America: It has told a story that there’s only one way to be a faithful Christian, and now that story has been shaped into a political agenda. The result is when other faithful Christians try to tell a different story about what they believe it means to follow Jesus, they get labeled as “political.”

When other faithful Christians try to tell a different story about what they believe it means to follow Jesus, they get labeled as “political.”

In this momentous year of presidential politics, COVID-19 and racial reckoning, it’s time for Christians to reclaim a message that is biblical — whether it appears political or not. Politicians should not be the ones defining what is a biblical view, and neither should church members who just want to avoid being challenged in their biases.

Right now, we’ve got the cart before the horse, and everyone seems to act like that’s just the way things ought to be. Except it isn’t.

Some concepts are so essential to Jewish and Christian Scripture, in particular, that they must always transcend political labels. We may rightly disagree about how to do some things, but Scripture itself leaves no room for debating whether we should do these things.

Among these big ideas that have been labeled political but actually are biblical:

God created all people. All. People. No exceptions. And God is “no respecter of persons,” meaning God does not discriminate and does not tolerate second-class or third-class labels for God’s own creation.

God loves all people. Even sinners. Regardless of birthplace, skin color, sexual orientation, marital status, education, wealth or political leanings. God does not love me more than you or love you more than me.

All life is sacred. Scripture has more to say about preserving the life of the already born than it does about abortion, but the “pro-life” movement in America focuses on only one aspect of what it means to preserve life. The Bible calls us to a consistent ethic, not an isolated ethic.

God hates injustice. Go read the Hebrew prophets to see what God says about uneven scales and deceitful business practices. Go read the New Testament epistles to see what God says about discrimination and haughtiness and love of self.

God takes the side of the poor and underprivileged. Sorry if you don’t like this, but it’s clear as a bell throughout Scripture. God never sides with the rich or even the would-be rich. From Genesis to Revelation, God works to lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty. God takes the side of immigrants and refugees and widows and orphans.

God breaks down walls rather than building walls. From the call of Abram in Genesis to go to a land unknown to the growth of the early church through the known world, the movement of God across all time acts like a rushing stream that tears down barriers in its wake.

These are not “political” ideas. These are biblical ideals. Faithful Christians should shape their citizenship based on such truths as a starting place, not as a convenience when available.

Yet long-term research shows that many Americans choose their political views first and let those views shape their religious beliefs and practices. This likely explains why someone like Robert Jeffress can stand in the historic pulpit of First Baptist Church of Dallas and blatantly endorse one candidate and one party with no one blinking. Over time, aided by our corrosive political climate, his congregation has made itself into a homogenous unit — birds of a feather, don’t you know?

The political segregation of the American church is bad for government and bad for religion. When everyone sitting together in a Sunday School class or worship service shares exactly the same political view, it is easy to confuse “Thus saith the Lord” with “Thus saith the party platform.”

Which brings us back to church members threatening to leave their congregations because the pastor is “talking too much” about race or social justice or care for the needy. Failing to engage these biblical conversations because you’ve been told they are political or because you are afraid of them only leads to greater segregation of the church.

McLaren: progressive Baptists essential to countering politics, racism in the white church

Progressive Baptists are crucial to promoting a Christianity free of power politics, white supremacy and the idolization of Donald Trump, according to theologian, author and speaker Brian McLaren.

“It’s all too plain that white evangelicals, white Catholics and Southern Baptists currently wield enormous political power,” said McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian.

Hearing alternative voices – and especially Baptist voices – preaching a different gospel sends a powerful message to a culture that was suspicious of the church even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the political and social turmoil sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last month.

I’ve become concerned that if the church has a resurgence without being purged of its racism, we’re making the world a worse place.

“Even just having the courage to say ‘I’m a Baptist and I see things differently’” could positively impact the future of the church, McLaren said.

“Younger generations of white Christians are growing up and if their only choice is Jerry Falwell (Jr.) and Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham, the vast majority of them will want nothing to do with Christianity.”

McLaren spoke with Baptist News Global about his assessment of the future of the church in light of recent events. His comments are included here, edited for brevity.

How have these months and weeks reshaped your ministry focus?

All of my public speaking is canceled for the time being. Some of it has transferred to online – I’m Zooming constantly. It has been in some ways a highly stressful time even though my schedule is a lot freer than it usually is.

Have the pandemic and the ongoing social and racial unrest reshaped your assessment of where the church and Christianity are headed?

Yes, definitely. A lot of my life has been devoted to helping the church adapt to changing times, survive and hopefully thrive in a new cultural and historic context. But as I have become more sensitized to the relationship between the white Christian church and white supremacy, I’ve become concerned that if the church has a resurgence without being purged of its racism, we’re making the world a worse place. So, I am now simultaneously concerned about the church’s survival, or its decline. If it survives and is linked with racism and authoritarianism, we have one kind of problem. And if it is marginalized and discredited and abandoned, we have another kind of problem.

And Baptists play a key role in this – obviously Southern Baptists because of their numbers and their close relationship with the Republican party and the current president. So, I see the world as more complex and paradoxical than I saw it before.

What are some of the signs that this is unfolding?

Let me say something on the positive side. I have been so impressed with the adaptability of thousands of our congregations to adjust to a period of months without being able meet personally. If you had put it up to deacon boards and elder boards around the country to vote on whether they would be willing to not meet for a period of time and experiment with going online, very few if any would have voted to do this. But necessity required it and people showed amazing adaptability and resilience. It tells me what the church is capable of. It’s a reminder to us that we have more agility than we previously realized.

This would be a powerful time for churches to rediscover their identity as God’s agents of peace and transformation and justice in this world

But the coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic, is a symptom of a larger problem. And that is we live in a globally interconnected world, yet many of our churches were formed in an era of nationalism. Many Christians are not ready yet, emotionally and intellectually, to adjust to a globalized world and they are yearning to go back to a world they are more familiar with.

How is this impacting the relevance of the church in people’s lives?

There’s a paradox there. There are certain ways that the church has increased its relevance. Churches around the country are providing food for people, they are supporting health care workers and have realized that their job is not only to serve their members but that they have a mission to the communities in which God has placed them. Wherever that is happening, that increases the church’s relevance. Even the simple act of becoming more digitally savvy can increase the church’s relevance.

But when churches have shown themselves to be more concerned about their self-interest – being able to gather people in person so they can collect an offering – the church shows itself as one of the most selfish organizations on the planet, one of the least disciplined, and it shows itself to be pandering to self-interest.

What can churches do to stay focused on mission in this context?

There’s been a movement over the past 30 years called missional Christianity. The idea is that God isn’t interested in getting us out of the world and into heaven, God is interested in getting into us and through us into the world. If God has a mission not just for the church, but for the world, this would be a powerful time for churches to rediscover their identity as God’s agents of peace and transformation and justice in this world and to rediscover the Gospel not as an evacuation plan but as a transformation plan. That, to me, is a starting point.

Are causes such as LGBTQ inclusivity or creation care fading into the background at this time?

Our theological arguments are not just arguments about God and the Bible, they are also arguments about how we want to live. So, when we have arguments about LGBTQ inclusion, on a very practical level we are arguing about how we want to treat each other. And when we have arguments about fossil fuels and preservation of species and climate change, we are having a deeper argument about how we want to live with the Earth. Ultimately, how we live with each other and how we live with the Earth, to me, are deeply spiritual questions, deeply rooted in scripture and they are never going away.

Are there biblical passages especially helpful today?

If I could recommend two scriptures for deep reflection, it would be Acts chapter 16, which is the story of the gospel coming to Philippi, and then the book of Philippians. If you read Acts 16 you see it not just as the story of the Philippian jailer, but one of the things you notice is that Paul begins his ministry with women and in fact goes to the most vulnerable person in Philippi, which is an exploited young woman – a slave woman. And when they preach the gospel there, it’s not a gospel of how to go to heaven after you die, it’s the gospel of the liberating power of Jesus Christ.

The abandonment of character as a political standard is tragic and regrettable and we will reap what we have sewn.

And then we come to Paul’s letter to the Philippians and it begins with a call for us to have the mind of Christ, which is the mind that does not seek self-interest but the interest of others. And right now, when the world looks at religion, it sees organizations all too often seeking their own self-preservation at the expense of the wellbeing of their neighbors. That’s what’s been happening with churches that are willing to meet, infect one another with the virus and bring that virus to their families and friends. Stories about this are unfolding around the world.

Is it ever helpful to compare President Trump to biblical figures, good or evil?

The way that Pentecostals, especially, but also many evangelicals, have used the (King) Cyrus motif to legitimize everything Donald Trump does, is so spiritually dangerous. That same logic could have been used to justify Hitler, Mussolini or Jim Jones, for that matter. It’s cultic thinking and deeply, deeply dangerous. How we use scripture to inform our political involvement is a fascinating and important and profound question. But one thing’s for sure: picking a Bible verse and using it to offer either a blanket condemnation or a blanket endorsement of anybody is a pretty pathetic way to start.

And I would like to add one thing: I think evangelicals and Baptists were closer to the truth 30 years ago when they used to say that character counts. I think the abandonment of character as a political standard is tragic and regrettable and we will reap what we have sown.

A global pestilence stalks in darkness. Will we tempt God or take up our cross? | #intimeslikethese

Is COVID-19 God’s punishment for gay marriage and abortion? Perry Stone, a Cleveland televangelist thinks so. Or maybe, with Billy Prewitt, author of The Coronavirus in Biblical Prophecy, you see the pandemic as God’s response to the persecution of Christians.

A.Q. Siddiqui, a correspondent with the “Times of India” newspaper, says the novel coronavirus shows that God is “unhappy with mankind” in general and religious leaders in particular. Why else, for the first time in history, would all the world’s great places of worship – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu, be shuttered simultaneously?

Robert Jeffress lured people into First Baptist Church, Dallas, on March 8, by publishing in advance this sermon title: “Is Coronavirus a Judgment from God?”

Many popular white evangelical preachers, much like our president, think like carnival barkers; it’s all about putting butts in the seats.

“We tempt God when we place ourselves in harm’s way on the theory that God will bail us out.”

In the case of Jeffress, the actual sermon was a bit of a letdown. The outspoken right-wing preacher fudged on the judgment-from-God question, saying only that every natural disaster is a result of human sin.

Eventually, he even backed away from his plan to defy the city’s social distancing protocol.

“I know our pastor and I know that he knows this is the most important thing,” a church member told the local press, “and God would want us to worship today” (March 8).

Is COVID-19 God’s judgment against the infidel? If so, shouldn’t the faithful gather for worship without fear of infection?

What saith the scriptures?

With few exceptions, the biblical narratives consider all natural occurrences, whether for weal or for woe, as direct expressions of the divine will. When bad things happen – an earthquake, a plague or a military reversal – God did it.

But God has placed a hedge of protection around the faithful. Psalm 91 lays this out in simple terms:

“You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday” (verses 5-6, NRSV).

By now we are all too familiar with “the pestilence that stalks in darkness,” a striking description of COVID-19. You can’t see a virus. It could be anywhere. It could be on your hands this very minute, awaiting transfer to nose or mouth.

But the psalmist tells us not to worry:

“A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand;
but it will not come near you” (verse 7).

Unless it does.

Six centuries before Jesus, the armies of Judah were crushed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. As the elite population was being dragged off to Babylon the prophets were scrambling for answers.

Not all prophets came to the same conclusion. Seers proclaiming that the disaster would be of short duration found a ready following. Jeremiah, however, had the audacity to voice Yahweh’s response:

“Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you’” (23:16-17).

Jeremiah wasn’t saying that Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon, was more powerful than Judah’s God. The king of Babylon was an unwitting agent of Yahweh, an instrument of God’s anger with his chosen people.

This was the only way prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel could make sense of a calamity this enormous. During the period of exile, all the ancient historical traditions of Israel, from the moment of creation to the day Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar, were edited to fit a simple formula: God blesses the faithful and punishes the faithless.

There is some pushback against this doctrine in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Job’s friends insist that the disasters falling on Job must be the sign of great sin, but Job won’t buy it. And when God finally shows up at the end of the story, the hand of the hapless Job is raised in victory.

Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, observes that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, while death comes for all. Thus, the ways of God are shrouded in mystery.

Another response was simple incomprehension. How could this be happening? Why does God no longer go out with our armies? Has Yahweh fallen asleep?

“We are desperate for reassurance that, however bleak things might seem on page 189, everything comes out right in the final chapter.”

The psalms of lamentation begin with these questions before returning to the traditional view: Peace and prosperity are God’s reward for covenant faithfulness; drought, famine and military defeat are God’s punishment for sin.

Viewed from this perspective, pandemics can’t be random events. When bad things happen, God is trying to tell us something, and the news isn’t good.

The Christian New Testament was written to account for a different kind of calamity: the brutal death of a would-be Messiah.

Jesus repeatedly warned his followers that his brief career would end badly, but they refused to listen. This could only mean that Jesus was a sinner.

On one occasion, Peter took his Master to task for talking like a loser (Mark 8:31-33). “This must never be,” he said. Glancing at his disciples before responding, Jesus delivered his famous line: “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

Jesus was remembering the close encounter with the Prince of Darkness that immediately preceded his public ministry. Satan dared Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem because, in Psalm 91, God promised to protect the righteous no matter what.

Jesus responded with a biblical citation of his own: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

We tempt God when we place ourselves in harm’s way on the theory that God will bail us out. With “the deadly pestilence” of COVID-19 stalking in darkness, the only faithful, rational and compassionate response is to stay home. When we insist on holding public church services, resuming college classes or curtailing the practice of social distancing on Easter Sunday, we are tempting God.

These rash acts may be motivated by faith in divine providence. It matters not. God will not be tempted.

As Mark’s story continues, Jesus turns to the multitude and issues a stark invitation: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34).

A walk with Jesus takes many intriguing twists and turns, some of them splendid and joyous, but the journey always ends at the cross. Always.

That might not sound like good news, but it is. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his,” Paul assures us, “we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

If it all ends in resurrection glory, we don’t mind the dying part so much.

I don’t watch Dallas Cowboy football games unless they win, in which case, I’ll check out the highlights on YouTube. That way, when “the boys” fall behind I don’t worry. I know the story ends well.

A true Cowboys fan would be horrified by my lame approach. You can’t appreciate the last-minute heroics unless things look hopeless. But if you have reckoned with certain defeat, a sudden reversal of fortune is exhilarating. It’s why it ain’t over till it’s over. It’s why we watch.

When we know the ending in advance, we forfeit the soul-crushing drama of the Jesus story.

We kneel beside Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “No worries,” we say. “Everything turns out all right in the end. You wait and see!”

We stand beneath the cross as Mary weeps for her darling boy. “This is hard to watch,” we say, “but the ending will knock your socks off!”

Jesus didn’t have that luxury. 

When he begged God to remove the cup, he wasn’t playing. When he cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” he was asking a real question.

“A walk with Jesus takes many intriguing twists and turns, but the journey always ends at the cross.”

Jesus died a godforsaken death. That’s the way it felt. It had to feel that way.

When he was laid to rest in Joseph’s tomb, Jesus wasn’t playing possum. He was stone cold dead.

The women who came to the tomb on Easter morning weren’t there to witness a miracle comeback; they came to anoint the body of a dead man.

We are broken by the brokenness of the world. It feels like lights out. When we break, God disappears so entirely we can’t imagine God was ever there.

That’s what Holy Saturday is all about. No spoiler alerts allowed. Jesus is dead and all is lost. If you don’t feel that way, you don’t understand the story.

And that’s the way it is with COVID-19, the pestilence that stalks in darkness. We don’t see an end game.

When will it be safe to go back to work? When will it be safe to return to worship? When will it be safe for the Boys of Summer to take the field?

No one knows.

And if the mounting death count should drop precipitously in a month or two, might it not come roaring back if we drop our guard?

No one knows.

And if we dodge this bullet, what are we going to do about climate change, that other pestilence stalking in darkness?

No one knows.

That’s why we tempt God.

When the president predicted overflowing churches and an economy “opened up and raring to go” by Easter Sunday his poll numbers soared. We want to believe that somebody had advance information. We are desperate for reassurance that, however bleak things might seem on page 189, everything comes out right in the final chapter.

We are tempted to believe that if we just go back to church on Easter Sunday all will be well. We can quote chapter and verse to justify our unwarranted optimism, but what we are really doing is tempting God.

In this moment, all we can really do is hang onto Jesus with the right hand, grasp our brothers and sisters with the left, and take one bold step into the gathering gloom of Holy Week.

That’s what this holy season of Lent has always been about. That’s what it’s about in the year 2020, amid a global pestilence that stalks in the darkness.

EDITOR’S NOTE: BNG is committed to providing timely and helpful news and commentary about ways Christians and churches are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Look for the hashtag #intimeslikethese. You can also use this form to help us identify compelling stories of faith and ministry in these challenging times.

Read more BNG news and opinion on this topic:

Trump supporters blast Christianity Today editorial calling for his removal

Two Southern Baptist megachurch pastors joined Donald Trump in criticizing an editorial in the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today saying the president should be removed from office.

Trump went after the magazine founded in 1956 by evangelist Billy Graham on Twitter Friday morning, calling it a “far left” publication “which has been doing poorly and hasn’t been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years.”

Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and a Trump supporter, tweeted that his late father would not agree with the editorial and would be disappointed, sharing for the first time that the elder Graham voted for Trump in 2016, believing he “was the man for this hour in history for our nation.”

Mark Galli

The Christianity Today editorial, signed by Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli, said the magazine’s standard practice is “to stay above the fray” of partisan politics and acknowledged that, “the Democrats have had it out for him from day one, and therefore nearly everything they do is under a cloud of partisan suspicion.”

“But the facts in this instance are unambiguous,” Galli wrote. “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”

Galli said impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives have “illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see.” Turning to evangelicals who support Trump’s policies despite his flaws, the editorial declared: “None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a Trump supporter, responded that Christianity Today “is a dying magazine that has been ‘Never Trump’ from the beginning.”

“They are going against 99 percent of evangelical Republicans who oppose impeachment,” Jeffress said, declaring Trump “the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-Israel president in history.”

Jack Graham, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and, like Jeffress, a member of the president’s unofficial evangelical advisory team, also weighed in.

“The magazine Billy Graham helped to start over 60 years ago in no way resembles its founders vision,” tweeted Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. “It is increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches.”

Galli, who retires from Christianity Today Jan. 3, said on CNN that CT is a “pretty centrist magazine in the evangelical world” that is simply doing “what were called to do.”

“We wrote editorials about Clinton during his impeachment process,” Galli said “We wrote editorials about Nixon during his. This struck me as rising to that level and it needed comment.”

Christianity Today claims readership of more than 5 million people monthly through various print and digital resources. Founder Billy Graham conceived of it as a “middle-of-the-road” evangelical counterbalance to the Christian Century, an independent magazine popular in mainline Protestantism with an editorial voice leaning more toward the left.

In Friday’s Twitter flurry, President Trump said he won’t be reading the magazine again.

Christianity Today knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call and would rather have a radical left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion and your guns, than Donald Trump as your president,” he said. “No president has done more for the evangelical community, and it’s not even close.”

Previous story:

Trump lashes out at SBC spokesman



Did the Pope compare Donald Trump to King Herod? Should he?

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.

Robert and Amy Lyon Renard Jeffress pose with President Trump in the Oval Office. (Photo posted on social media)

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.

Nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church.

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.

The Massacre of the Innocents, painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1612, displays the biblical scene in gory detail.

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.


Impeaching ‘the deeply held faith values’ that brought us a President Trump

Greg JarrellIt did not take long in the public impeachment hearings to demonstrate that the central facts are not in question. Donald J. Trump abused his office as president of the United States by (within the scope of current investigations) creating a bribery scheme to trade public money and official acts for personal and political gain.

The whole case stands, at this point, on whether enough lawmakers can agree that abusing public office for personal gain is grounds for removing a president from office. Everyone understands, whether they acknowledge it publicly or not, that this is an abuse of power, and that it is properly called “bribery.” But the political process depends on whether the votes exist to remove the president from office. So far, the Republicans’ bet is that they can withstand the facts in order to hold on to power.

They, along with their white evangelical supporters, are making that bet as part of their ongoing fight against the changing landscape of the country. The Republican base and their elected officials see the tide changing. Powerful people of color – especially women and queer people of color – are rising in prominent public and private positions. Technology amplifies the voices of those who formerly could be canceled by the powerful. An administration founded in backlash to the first black presidency of the republic rightly sees this as an existential crisis.

“The world that would dare to receive the Christ child must first impeach a few things, including every Herod.”

The idea of sharing power threatens entrenched white interests. For those interests, represented by Trump but extending to white folks of every political stripe, the moment feels apocalyptic. And every good apocalypse needs prophets.

The book in the Hebrew Bible named for the prophet Jeremiah is built around a series of political crises in ancient Israel. These crises ultimately end in the world-shaking event called Exile, an event that much of the Bible is organized around and regularly refers to. In the crisis of the Exile, at least two groups of prophets line up to speak to the powers in the capital city of Jerusalem, and to speak to the people as well.

Jeremiah stands as one of the few prophets of the one true God of the universe. His oracles to the entrenched powers of his day are not comforting. He challenges them to repent of their wrongdoing and to make reparations for their sin. Consequently, Jeremiah is not a very popular person around the palace.

Opposite Jeremiah are a team of “court prophets.” Their jobs, as they understand it, is to bring a word from God, but their words always fail. Instead of speaking truth, they comfort the comfortable. They encourage the king to hold on to power in spite of all the facts. They famously cry, “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (6:14). In sum, the court prophets tell the king and the entrenched powers what they wanted to hear. The path to the destruction of Jerusalem was built by these court prophets, those who uttered deceit in the name of God.

“Jeffress has built a career around trivializing the Gospel in support of white nationalism.”

The United States of America is not ancient Judah, and any comparison between our time and theirs needs to be done carefully. But it is clear that there is no shortage of court prophets today. They are ready to defend entrenched power against the rise of the oppressed demanding recognition of their full humanity. In these moments of impeachment, the court prophets have lined up to defend the president, led by a few prominent, white evangelical leaders.

None is more outspoken than Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas.

You may know Jeffress as a TV preacher and Trump’s theological lap dog. He appears on FOX News regularly to assure the faithful that the president’s racist and immoral practices are OK, his own ordination notwithstanding. Jeffress has built a career around trivializing the Gospel in support of white nationalism. He is precisely the preacher Ezekiel refers to when he says, “The prophets have … divined lies, saying ‘Thus says the Lord’ when the Lord has not spoken” (22:28).

You might say that Jeffress stands in a long historical tradition of the court prophets. Though the Bible they claim to love shows the failure of such a career, no small number of preachers regularly soothe the powerful with their empty words.

“These prophets not only weep. They also organize.”

But even a stopped watch is right twice a day, as the saying goes. And to my surprise, Pastor Jeffress got it right the other day, though he seemed not to know it. On Fox Business, he said, “The effort to impeach President Trump is really an effort to impeach our own deeply held faith values.” Glory, glory hallelujah! Jeffress saw the light.

The effort to impeach Trump, if it is to be worthwhile, is precisely an effort to impeach the faith values that brought us a President Trump. It is an effort to impeach white supremacy. It is an effort to impeach brutality against migrants. It is an effort to lift up workers rather than bosses. It is an effort to stop the destruction of God’s creation. It is an effort to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.

The effort to impeach the faith values that brought us a President Trump is part of the liberating work of God in the world. The prophets of this work weep, like Jeremiah, with parents separated from their children. They weep with those in cages because of mass incarceration. They weep with those who are hungry and homeless while billionaires refuse to pull their weight. They weep with those bankrupted trying to pay for life-saving medical care. They weep at the perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, twisted to justify those evils.

But these prophets not only weep. They also organize.

From the earliest moments of his ministry, Jeremiah is prepared by God for the work of prophetic ministry in the world. There will be weeping, but also the victory of building. There will be loss, but also the joyful organizing of a world where the poor and broken-hearted can flourish.

“I am appointing you today,” God tells Jeremiah, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). The fault lines that run through society will destroy some places we hold sacred – like family tables during holidays or church sanctuaries filled with people who think they are white. Before unity, there will be division. Peace, peace? First a sword (Matthew 10:34). The exposure of our fractures will create the opportunity for healing.

As we hurtle towards the long nights ahead of us, the trembling hope of Advent awaits. Advent lectionary readings always begin with the apocalyptic. Christian tradition understands that the moments before salvation require prophetic visions and judgments. The world that would dare to receive the Christ child must first impeach a few things, including every Herod. But not just Herod – also the prophets and priests and disciples who help prepare the way for a Herod or Nero or Pharaoh or Trump.

Each year’s Advent readings, following the apocalyptic texts, turn our gaze to Mary. Her prophetic ministry offers a song that echoes Jeremiah’s call:

“My soul magnifies the Lord…,
who has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
who has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53).

These are the days for magnifying the Lord by impeaching the powerful from their throne, and by lifting up those who have wept for many long nights.

Fallen Southern Baptist leader props up pro-Trump pastor

Dethroned seminary president Paige Patterson defended a fellow Southern Baptist preacher often maligned for his unwavering support of President Donald Trump, anointing Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress a prophet in a column posted Nov. 19 on the Internet.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, retweeted Patterson’s tribute, written in a style mimicking the Fox News contributor’s many detractors under the headline “Come on, Dr. Jeffress!”

“Ah, come on now, Dr. Jeffress. Why don’t you just preach the gospel and leave politics to the social justice warriors who say that they know what they are doing?” the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote on the Paige Patterson Ministries website, paigepatterson.org.

“Oh, wait a minute,” Patterson answered his own question. “You actually do preach the gospel about as consistently and insistently as anyone I know.”

Patterson returned to interrogation, asking the clergyman who once called the president’s alleged affair with a porn star “totally irrelevant” to his evangelical base, “Why do you not ‘trump’ Trump?”

“His style is not what anyone is used to, and his past is apparently not what a believer is looking for,” Patterson objected.

“Well, yes, I admit that the president has done more for the pre-born in their mothers’ wombs than any other president; the unemployment rate is the lowest anyone can remember; the economy is booming; he has kept his word about what he promised, and overwhelmingly minorities in America have a new start,” Patterson wrote. “He has openly asked for God’s intervention in the life of America, but he is just ’er … well, so different, and surely that must be sinful. Come on Dr. Jeffress! Can’t you understand that this is all about style? Thousands do not care what the president does. It is how he does it that makes feathers stand on end.”

Paige Patterson

Patterson went on to state that Jeffress gets it right, declaring “the mantle of Elijah has fallen around your shoulders.”

“The spirit of the prophet dwells in you because you follow God’s Word even if no one else sees it,” Patterson wrote.

“Amid the cacophony of thousands of non-biblical voices, many of us are grateful to you this day. Let Jeffress be heard!”

Patterson also defended himself against recent attempts to portray him as a racist.

Ben Cole, a onetime student of Patterson who is researching SBC archives for an upcoming book, recently resurfaced a 2012 letter from Patterson worrying that electing people of color to SBC leadership posts might water down commitment to core convictions of the Conservative Resurgence movement that he co-founded with Judge Paul Pressler in 1979.

Cole, now one of Patterson’s chief critics, taunted him in a Twitter post Nov. 12: “Oh hai Paige. Can you help us understand what you meant in 2012 when you said SBC Pres @FredLuter caused you to ‘quake’ and that ‘ethnic’ leaders don’t ‘understand the issues’ like white men do? Do black men have a greater propensity for ‘backsliding’?”

Patterson responded in kind Nov. 15, publishing personal correspondence from Cole in 2017 about a photo blasted on social media showing white faculty members at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary posing as black rappers.

“On the issue of race, your consistent witness is untarnished,” Cole wrote at the time. “I’m sorry this has created a headache for you and your faculty. If ever given the opportunity, I would defend you all the way and repudiate those who might attribute to you or the institution you lead any racist motive in this matter.”

Two years ago Southwestern Seminary apologized for the “offensive” Twitter photo posted by an individual and asked that it be removed.

“Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives,” Patterson said in comments quoted April 26, 2017, by Baptist Press. “Such incidents are tragic but helpful to me in refocusing on the attempt to flush from my own system any remaining nuances of the racist past of our own country. Just as important, my own sensitivity to the corporate and individual hurts of a people group abused by generations of oppressors needs to be constantly challenged.”

Patterson, long hailed as a hero who almost singlehandedly rescued the nation’s second largest faith group from drifting into liberal Mainline Protestantism, fell rapidly from grace when the #MeToo movement began viewing him as a misogynist whose indifference to rape allegations created a culture at two SBC seminaries that was inherently dangerous for women.

Pastor Robert Jeffress gives President Trump the first copy of his 2017 book, “A Place Called Heaven.” (White House photo)

Southwestern Seminary trustees fired Patterson in May 2018, revoking retirement benefits and an honorary title bestowed a month earlier, amid allegations that he mishandled reports of sexual abuse both while serving as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary 1992-2003 and during his 15 years as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

A lawsuit pending in federal court alleges that Patterson “had a custom of ignoring female students’ complaints of sexual harassment and stalking behavior by male student-employees” while leading Southwestern in 2014 and 2015.

Patterson denies specific allegations made in the lawsuit, while claiming a blanket First Amendment defense that the Constitution forbids secular courts from interfering in internal affairs of a religious body.

Jeffress defended Patterson in 2018, offering: “I think this is unfair what is being leveled against Paige Patterson – and I’m going to predict he’s going to survive it.”