By now, Americans have grown accustomed to incendiary rhetoric from the raging right. Nevertheless, the past week witnessed some truly explosive eruptions from some of the leading lights of the conservative movement. Last Sunday, Donald Trump warned that his impeachment and removal from office could trigger a second civil war. Three days later, frequent Fox News flame-thrower Todd Starnes lost his longtime gig with the network after an episode of his radio show that advanced the theory that Democrats worship the Old Testament pagan god Moloch, who allowed for child sacrifice.
But in neither case were the slanders and threats original. The savage sound bites Trump and Starnes circulated to the world weren’t the handiwork of press secretaries or the focus group-tested talking points of a Karl Rove or Frank Luntz. No, these abominations were the dirty work of a supposed man of God, Pastor Robert Jeffress. Jeffress isn’t merely the pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas. As it turns out, the radio show host, Fox News contributor, and White House regular may well now be the President’s go-to culture warrior. When it comes to the people and policies the MAGA crowd detests the most, Robert Jeffress is Donald Trump’s minister of hate.
So it was a week ago when the president of the United States deployed Jeffress against the voices of impeachment rapidly growing to a crescendo after the revelations of his Ukrainian skullduggery:
If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Pastor Robert Jeffress, @FoxNews
To be sure, Trump’s borrowed bellicosity was music to the ears of the Oath Keepers and other armed right-wing militias seemingly so eager to turn to violence to enforce their political preferences against the United States Constitution. But Dinesh D’Souza’s mythmaking notwithstanding, the warmongering of today’s Party of Lincoln is a far cry from the stance of its forebears. As President Lincoln, on March 4, 1861, put it in his First Inaugural Address, delivered after most Southern states had greeted his election with secession, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’”
One might think Jeffress himself would hesitate to traffic in such dangerous civil war rhetoric, given that his Southern Baptist Convention split from northern Baptists in 1845 precisely to protect the institution of slavery. It took until 1995—a full 150 years later—for the SBC to issue an apology for it.
But to expect restraint from the minister of hate would be to ignore his jeremiads encouraging schism, division, and separation. While the Constitution forbids religious tests for office, Jeffress has repeatedly emphasized that Heaven is another matter altogether. As The New York Times reported in 2018, Jeffress used a September 2008 sermon to drive that point home:
“Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — not only do they lead people away from the true God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell,” Mr. Jeffress said. “Hell is going to be filled with good religious people who have rejected the truth of Christ.”
Two years later, in an interview with the Trinity Broadcast Network, Jeffress made the point again, just in case anyone missed it the first time:
“Islam is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell,” Mr. Jeffress said in the interview. “Mormonism is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell.”
He added: “Judaism — you can’t be saved being a Jew. You know who said that, by the way? The three greatest Jews in the New Testament: Peter, Paul and Jesus Christ. They all said Judaism won’t do it. It’s faith in Jesus Christ.”
This is not to suggest that such views are not representative of American evangelicals—far from it. But at the end of the day, Pat Robertson and then Robert Jeffress had called a truce with the LDS Church and endorsed Mitt Romney for president in 2012. All of the talk of “cults” was to be back-burnered until Barack Obama was safely ejected from the White House.
But in November 2012, President Obama retained his hold on the Oval Office. That meant that evangelicals’ fealty would have to be transferred to a new champion for 2016, one who would do anything to give them everything they wanted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Donald Trump had evangelicals at “hello.” As early as March 31, 2011, David Brody of Christian network CBN explained the immediate appeal of the thrice-married serial adulterer to the GOP’s white evangelical base:
Before you watch the Donald Trump’s interview with Bill O’Reilly last night let me sum up the main points that Evangelicals might be interested in:
- He’s opposed to gay marriage.
- He’s pro-life.
- He says “There is a Muslim problem” in the World.
- He says, “There is a doubt as to whether or not (Barack Obama) was born here.”
By July 2016, a Pew Research Center survey showed that Trump was already outperforming George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney among evangelical voters. His promises regarding Supreme Court nominations, ending the Johnson Amendment’s prohibition on political activity by tax-exempt churches, opposition to marriage equality, and cynical conversion on abortion translated to 78% support that summer. On Election Day 2016, Trump garnered a whopping 81% of the evangelical vote.
Jeffress was an early and ardent Trump adopter — “I was one of the earliest,” he told me, recalling a conversation he’d had with Trump in January 2016. “I said, ‘Mr. Trump, I believe you’re going to be the next president of the United States, and if that happens, it’s because God has a great plan for you and for our country.’” Trump pressed him, Jeffress said, to which the pastor replied: “Daniel 2 says God is the one who installs kings and establishes kings and removes kings.” For his faith and his loyalty (including an episode in which Jeffress’s gospel choir serenaded a Trump rally with an ode to his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan), Trump has richly rewarded Jeffress, tweeting positively about the pastor’s books and inviting him to numerous events, including an Inauguration Day prayer ceremony, a Christmas reception and a White House dinner honoring an executive-order signing.
Jeffress’ unconditional backing continued uninterrupted after Trump took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017. On issue after issue, Jeffress insisted that God was on Trump’s side. Citing the New Testament book of Romans, Jeffress in August 2017 proclaimed, “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” While many Christian groups and their leaders were horrified by the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, Jeffress was not among them. And as the scandal surrounding Trump’s hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels began to mushroom in the spring of 2018, the pastor declared that evangelicals “knew they weren’t voting for an altar boy” when they cast their ballots in 2016.
“Evangelicals know they are not compromising their beliefs in order to support this great president,” Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, said March 8 on Fox News. […]
“Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star,” Jeffress said. “However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him.”
Irrelevant, Jeffress explained, because “We supported him because of his policies and his strong leadership.” And the issue that mattered most—the one in which Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush had all failed them—was moving the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. While a majority of American Jews opposed President Trump’s decision to relocate the embassy, and a far larger majority overwhelmingly oppose Trump and his Republican Party, white evangelicals are uniformly behind both.
Which is why Donald Trump rewarded Pastor Jeffress and his fellow Texas Pastor John Hagee with the biggest prize of them all: delivering prayers at the opening of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem. As The New York Times reported (“Robert Jeffress, Pastor Who Said Jews Are Going to Hell, Led Prayer at Jerusalem Embassy”) on May 14, 2018:
A Dallas evangelical pastor who once said that Jewish people are going to hell and a megachurch televangelist who claimed that Hitler was part of God’s plan to return Jews to Israel both played prominent roles on Monday in the opening ceremony of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem…
In their prayers at the ceremony on Monday, both pastors praised Mr. Trump. Mr. Jeffress said the president “stands on the right side of you, God, when it comes to Israel.” Mr. Hagee said the new embassy made a clear statement: “Let every Islamic terrorist hear this message: ‘Israel lives.’”
If the name John Hagee sounds nauseatingly familiar, it should. Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, is another leading evangelical figure, whose endorsement John McCain sought and then renounced during the 2008 presidential campaign. Hagee is perhaps the most prominent evangelical advocate of a one-state solution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and a supporter of a hard line against the Palestinians and the Iranians as a means of accelerating the second coming of Christ. In that eschatology, the battle of Armageddon and the conversion of some Jews—and the mass slaughter of the rest—is a biblically required stepping stone to the End Times. As Hagee put it in 2006, “The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West … a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.”
As it turned out, John McCain accepted Hagee’s endorsement because of such comments, and not despite them. But when Hagee proclaimed things like, “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the City of New Orleans” and “Hitler was a hunter” sent by God because “God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel,” that was too much for McCain. Besides, Hagee had said some pretty horrible things about Catholics, too. As the AP described Hagee’s subsequent mea culpa to Catholic leaders in May 2008:
Hagee has often made references to “the apostate church” and the “great whore,” terms that Catholics say are slurs aimed at the Roman Catholic Church. In his letter, Hagee said he now better understood that the Book of Revelation’s reference to the Catholic Church as “the apostate church” and the “great whore” are “a rhetorical device long employed in anti-Catholic literature and commentary.”
The ears of America’s 70 million Catholics must have still been burning when Jeffress picked up where Hagee left off. After suggesting in 2010 that the Catholic Church was an instrument of Satan and a “counterfeit religion,” Jeffress the next year proclaimed Catholicism a “cult-like, pagan religion” that “infected the early Church” and “corrupted” it by showing “the genius of Satan.”
“Today the Roman Catholic Church is the result of that corruption. Much of what you see in the Catholic Church today doesn’t come from God’s word. It comes from this cultlike pagan religion. You say, ‘Well, now, Pastor, how can you say such a thing? That is such an indictment of the Catholic Church.’ After all, the Catholic Church talks about God and the Bible and Jesus and the blood of Christ and salvation. Isn’t that the genius of Satan?”
Speaking of Satan, let’s get back to Donald Trump. With his alarming takeover of the federal judiciary, Trump is on the cusp of delivering the other prize evangelicals seek most: a Supreme Court that will undo its twin sins of abortion rights and marriage equality. Having decried “what homosexuals do” as “filthy” and “degrading,” Jeffress has likened same-sex marriage to bestiality and mocked the court’s Obergefell decision as “a collective shaking of our fists in God’s face saying ,’We don’t care what You say about life’s most important relationship. We know best.’”
And when it comes to knowing best, the ultimate authority, according to Robert Jeffress, is Robert Jeffress. Two days before Election Day 2012, Jeffress told his flock that President Obama was “paving the way” for the Antichrist:
“I want you to hear me tonight, I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all. One reason I know he’s not the Antichrist is the Antichrist is going to have much higher poll numbers when he comes,” said Jeffress.
“President Obama is not the Antichrist. But what I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.”
When President Trump irked some with his August 2019 announcement, “I am the chosen one” (at least when it came to trade with China), Jeffress rose to his defense. As the Christ and Antichrist detector explained to the now-Foxless Todd Starnes, “As a friend of President Trump’s, I can assure your audience he does not have a messiah complex. He does not see himself as the messiah.”
No, Donald Trump is not the messiah. He’s just a man—a very dangerous and divisive man—who happens to be the 45th president of the United States. Ed Kilgore asked in New York magazine, “Do Conservative Evangelicals Like Trump Not Despite But for His Hatefulness?” Among older evangelicals, the answer is pretty clearly yes. Which means for them, too, Robert Jeffress is Donald Trump’s minister of hate.