First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’ latest controversial statement, asserting President Donald Trump’s God-given authority to mete out “evil punishment” and blow North Korea to kingdom come, was in character for a man with a long track record of cruel and asinine opinions about people who do not share his narrow worldview. But, to some observers, Jeffress’ violent posturing and his obsequious attitude toward a president with no history of Christian devotion seems inexplicable for a man who has devoted his life to studying the teachings of Jesus, the “prince of peace.”
John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Mechanicgsburg, Pa., investigated this seeming contradiction in a column last month for The Washington Post, in which he holds up Jeffress as the prime contemporary example of a “court evangelical,” his term “for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.”
Fea does not see this as an admirable thing:
The court evangelicals’ allegiance to Trump is taking them into a new and dangerous place. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (who famously claimed that Jesus was his favorite philosopher) had their flaws, but they were both men of character who possessed a respect for the history and integrity of the office of the president. When they were tested — Reagan in the fight against communism, and Bush during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — they responded with moral courage and leadership for the whole country.
Trump is different.
His campaign and presidency has shed light on a troubling wing of American evangelicalism willing to embrace nationalism, populism, fear of outsiders and anger. The leaders of this wing trade their evangelical witness for a mess of political pottage and a Supreme Court nomination…
If the court evangelicals were students of history, they have learned the wrong lesson from evangelical political engagement of the 1970s and 1980s. Trump’s presidency — with its tweets and promises of power — requires evangelical leaders to speak truth to power, not to be seduced by it.
If Jeffress seems overly concerned with rendering unto this particular Caesar, it’s to advance his own agenda: the return of a “Christian nation” that never existed in the first place. It’s a meaningless phrase that dovetails nicely with “Make America Great Again,” a slogan First Baptist Dallas has embraced in (arguably idolatrous) performances during church services.
The leader of First Baptist Dallas has been spouting inflammatory and hateful rhetoric for years, but now he believes he has a sympathetic ear in the White House. A Road to Damascus moment seems unlikely — expect Jeffress to continue in this vein in the Fox News appearances his latest outburst will surely earn him. The president, after all, will probably be watching.
In his rush to curry favor with the earthly powers that be, Jeffress has lost sight of the heavenly teachings he is supposed to be sharing with his followers.