Pastor Jeffress, Remember George Washington

Pastor Robert Jeffress speaks at the Celebrate Freedom Rally in Washington, D.C., July 1, 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
‘The Government of the United State gives to bigotry no sanction.’

This week’s U.S. embassy opening in Jerusalem included a dedication prayer by a prominent Dallas pastor, prompting Mitt Romney to complain by tweet:

Robert Jeffress says, “You can’t be saved by being a Jew,” and “Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.” He’s said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States embassy in Jerusalem.

Romney presumably recalled that in 2011 Jeffress had warned a Values Voters summit that Romney as a Mormon belonged to a “cult.”

Responding to Romney’s tweet this week, Jeffress insisted he’s merely a defender of “historic Christianity” and that his presence at the embassy dedication “struck a blow against the systemic bigotry” aimed at traditional Christians. He accused Romney of joining “liberals in seeking to shun and silence those who believe in the Christian faith of the Bible.”

But Jeffress, who is a Fox News contributor, is a lightning rod for more than just touting historic Christianity or critiquing Mormonism and Islam. In 2010, on his radio show Pathway to Victory, Jeffress depicted Roman Catholicism in nearly monstrous terms:

This is the Babylonian mystery religion that spread like a cult throughout the entire world. The high priests of that fake religion, that false religion, the high priests of that religion would wear crowns that resemble the heads of fish, that was in order to worship the fish god Dagon.

Jeffress recounted that the “early church was corrupted by this Babylonian mystery religion, and today the Roman Catholic Church is the result of that corruption.” Much of Catholicism he said comes from “cult like, pagan religion,” that is “counterfeit” and exploited by Satan.

More recently, Jeffress has insisted that he believes “millions” of Catholics will go to heaven. And his regular interlocutor, Sean Hannity, a Catholic whom Jeffress has hosted at his Dallas church, has said Jeffress accepts him as a fellow Christian.

Every religion, no matter how supposedly inclusive it claims to be, has exclusive beliefs. Try questioning any aspect of LGBTQ or climate-change orthodoxy at a gathering of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Admittedly, Jeffress’s earlier harsh views about Catholicism were not uncommon among some Protestants not many years ago. Protestants by definition disagree with Catholic doctrine, and vice versa for Catholics about Protestantism. Catholics and Protestants, with other Christians, believe that Jesus is divine and the only Lord, disagreeing with all other religions. Islam believes that there’s no God but Allah and that Muhammed is his prophet. Jews have sacrificed much across millennia for their faith in the God of Abraham.

Some Jeffress critics this week, partly echoing Romney, have faulted his religious exclusivism. Their implication seemingly is that anyone in mainstream public discourse must affirm the equality and perhaps interchangeability of all religions. But no serious adherent of any religion can accede to this expectation. Every religion, no matter how supposedly inclusive it claims to be, has exclusive beliefs. Try questioning any aspect of LGBTQ or climate-change orthodoxy at a gathering of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

One of the glories and successes of American democracy is that people of faith in the public arena are not expected to abandon or minimize the distinctness of their own theology. Or at least not until recently. Generally, we’ve shared a broad expectation that publicly engaged religious practitioners will be respectful toward one another. Believers don’t have to agree about one another’s salvation. Yet ideally, in public life, they will speak and behave civilly, recognizing that American citizenship guarantees equal rights for all, irrespective of theology. It’s unclear whether Jeffress fully affirms this notion.

Jeffress last year claimed that his 2010 derisive comments about Catholicism were “ripped out of their context,” but he didn’t say how. And they weren’t. He would better have explained that he held or expressed those views on his radio show for his own church audience, years before he became a national political figure with wider responsibilities.

Maybe less excusable, because before a political audience, are Jeffress’s anti-Romney comments in 2011, when he introduced Texas governor Rick Perry by exclaiming: “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” Later Jeffress told reporters: “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult.” And: “Every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.”

Governor Perry disavowed Jeffress’s anti-Mormon comments, but Jeffress, who said he would still support Romney over Obama, never clearly expressed regret. Since becoming a regular on Fox News and the most outspoken member of Trump’s advisory council on faith, Jeffress seems to have become more careful about how he speaks of other religions, without disavowing past remarks.

Those past remarks typically were not merely defenses of “historic Christianity,” as Jeffress now professes, but gratuitous public attacks on other religions that did not enhance the cause of Evangelicalism spiritually or politically. As a conservative Protestant myself, I’m befuddled by how his earlier appeals resonated, if they did so, even among his own constituency.

In 2013, I was part of a religious coalition defending, unsuccessfully, the longtime Boy Scout moral standards for Scout masters. When collecting a letter by religious leaders, whose support we sought for the Scout policy, I declined to add Jeffress’s name, recalling his comments on Catholics and Mormons. His public stances contravened the ecumenical and interfaith coalition we needed.

Any effective political coalition in America needs Americans of many faiths. Indeed, the whole history of our democracy argues against even implied religious or theological litmus tests for public office.

Maybe Jeffress is grudgingly learning. Let’s hope so. But we all need to recall the spirit of George Washington’s famous pledge to the Newport synagogue in 1790: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . The Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy.

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