Looking forward to my meeting at 2:00 P.M. with wonderful Inner City Pastors!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2019
A few months after that, in August, the White House hosts an elaborate dinner for a hundred or so evangelical leaders from across the country. Franklin Graham is there. So are James Dobson and Paula White, a TV host and pastor of a Florida megachurch. Jeffress is one of the preachers Trump thanks by name.
Reading prepared remarks, the president lists his evangelical-friendly accomplishments: issuing orders limiting government funding for groups that provide abortions, helping to free an American pastor being held in Turkey, moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Of course, there’s no record of him mentioning any of these issues before campaigning for president and meeting people like Jeffress.
At the end of his short speech, Trump thanks the religious leaders. He calls them “special people.” Then he looks up from his script.
“The support you’ve given me has been incredible,” the president says. “But I really don’t feel guilty, because I have given you a lot back.”
Jeffress gives Trump his unqualified support. Why?
“Basic core spiritual issues” is usually his answer when I press him on why he goes out of his way, again and again, to defend Trump. He cares about religious liberty—which for him essentially boils down to whether churches and businesses should be required to provide birth control for employees and whether businesses can deny service to gay or trans people. And nearly every policy discussion eventually comes back to what he sees as the national battle that started in Dallas when he was a teenager. He believes Roe v. Wade, not the issue of sexual assault or of judicial temperament, was at the heart of the fight over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The Democrats were worried that Kavanaugh’s rulings would “somehow lessen the number of babies being murdered every year in the womb through abortion.”Which is not much of an answer, frankly. Jeffress, it turns out, is a careful public figure, a politicians himself. He says his congregation welcomes all political persuasions, all races, all types (well, not gays; they're going to hell. Jeffress is quite happily clear on that point, Like many a conservative preacher I've known, they always seem comfortable with damning some people to eternal torment just because.) He speaks in defense of Donald Trump on television at the drop of a hat; but he never quite says just why he's so devoted to Trump, except, at the end of the article, to say he considers Trump "a friend." Maybe it's because he and Trump share a trait in common:
This is why Trump is the sort of warrior evangelicals have long craved, a warrior who will fight for their beliefs regardless of whether he holds those beliefs himself. This is why Jeffress doesn’t worry about Trump’s personal behavior. “When you’re in a war, you don’t worry about style,” he explains. “Nobody would have criticized General Patton because of his language. We’re in a war here between good and evil. And to me, the president’s tone, his demeanor, just aren’t issues I choose to get involved with.” (When I look this up later, I learn that some top commanders and many members of Congress did criticize—and discipline—General Patton for verbally abusing and slapping two soldiers. He was suspended from his command and made to apologize.)I could have told you Patton was reprimanded for slapping that soldier. My father remembered the incident (he remembered nothing else about Patton) and he despised Patton for it, decades later (the subject came up when the George C. Scott movie came out). Jeffress, like me, is far too young to have ever known that story except as history; and he gets the history wrong, but it's the example he needs, not accuracy. Early in the article Jeffress is on Lou Dobbs show, defending Trump's border wall by declaring the Bible describes heaven as a place with a wall around it. The Bible says no such thing. Revelations 21 describes the "New Jerusalem," but that's a concrete metaphor of the "basiliea tou theou" announced in the Gospels; it's not a description of an existent reality. Revelation describes a city as it would exist in the 1st century, not an eternal structure that cannot be altered. I know Jeffress takes the Bible literally, but this is laughable, and as impossible to literalize as the nativity stories (Luke moves the Holy Family back and forth from Nazareth; Matthew moves them from Bethlehem to Egypt, and then to Nazareth. It can't be both.). But Jeffress wants a wall to keep people out of America he thinks don't belong here (he also balks at AOC's reference to Matthew's nativity story, where the Holy Family flees to Egypt, refugees fleeing the death sentence of Herod. AOC is a good Catholic, and knows her Bible stories well. Jeffress scoffs, claiming Egypt didn't have a border patrol, so the Family couldn't be refugees. No, it's not an argument that holds up to the barest scrutiny. Then again, it's not meant to. One reason Jeffress never defends his positions in an interview; he has no interest in defending what he says. He believes it, that's good enough for him. Self-reflection, self-examination, seem as foreign to him as the concept God loves all of creation, not just the part that is Jeffress' brand of "Christian."). He has an anchor, in other words, for his claim "the Bible says," but that anchor depends on a very particular and peculiar hermeneutic, and I doubt Jeffress is any more reflective on that than Trump is on himself when he gathers his Cabinet to hear them praise him on camera.
The only conclusion I can draw from this article is a rather obtuse one: Robert Jeffress has faith in Donald Trump. Maybe it's the abortion issue, and Trump's Supreme Court nominees will eventually overturn Roe v. Wade, an issue Jeffress is adamant about but which he can't explain to his interlocutor except on the grounds that “We didn’t have the ability to view a life inside the womb as we do today and understand that that’s a real, live human being.” Who are of value until they are born:
What about children at the border and the administration’s policy of separating families? Doesn’t he think we should protect babies at our borders too?
“Look,” he tells me, “if you have a woman who is convicted of a bank robbery and she has an infant child and she’s sent to prison, I mean, her baby is going to be ripped from her.”
But of course, we have gradations of crimes in this country, and crossing a border—even if it’s illegal—is a far different thing than robbing a bank. This policy was instituted as a deterrent. I remind him that many people, including some Baptists, believe it’s a callous way to treat children.
“If we don’t secure our borders, we’re enticing the needy people, the persecuted people, to make a dangerous journey to come to this country or try to enter illegally, and I think, in part, we are morally responsible for doing that,” he tells me. He compares it to laws that hold homeowners responsible when a child strays into an unfenced pool and drowns. “We’ve got to figure out a way to secure our borders and at the same time deal equitably and justly with people who want to enter this country for legitimate reasons.”
A wall at the border is a fence around a private pool is the New Jerusalem; somehow. And the difference between a "real, live human being" in the womb, and out of the womb, is: the womb. Huh. Wonder what he'd think about that?
Jeffress has told me he was drawn to Trump’s leadership and intellect. “He’s a very smart person,” he’s said. “You don’t become a billionaire and president of the United States by being an idiot.” But none of that quite explains why a pastor goes out of his way to publicly defend the president’s every indiscretion. He could easily vote according to his views on the Supreme Court or according to his conscience on abortion without also going on TV, over and over, in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers, to explain away things like Trump’s adultery and language that inflames foreign policy. He could be in favor of immigration reform, for example, and not feel compelled to rationalize the separation of families. He could believe that God has put someone in power and still hold that person to a high moral standard.
What, at the end of the article, is Jeffress' explanation?
“I’m his friend,” he says. “I’ll never walk away.”I won't walk away from my friends (even if they wish I would!). But neither will I defend fervently and publicly everything they ever said or did. It seems to me this is beyond friendship, that this is faith. Faith as trust, I mean. Maybe that's a bit disturbing, since it seems very much to be blind faith; but Robert Jeffress faith in God has earned him a prominent position of power and authority and prosperity, even if he doesn't sound anything like Joel Osteen (plenty of pastors of my childhood, especially of the Southern Baptist variety, were only a whisker away from the prosperity gospel, anyway). His faith in God has been amply rewarded, even if I'd argue it was his faith in mammon and American culture, not God. Who am I to judge? I don't wish to. I just find it interesting his faith in God has led him to have what I can only understand as the very same faith in Donald Trump.
Still, Jeffress told Trump that God wanted Barack Obama to be president, so maybe God is backing a Democrat in 2020, just to fulfill God's mysterious plans. It could happen.