A pastor with a long history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays is scheduled to preach at a private service for President-elect Trump and his family on Friday, shortly before Trump takes the oath of office.
The pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, is a Southern Baptist who vigorously campaigned for Trump during the final months of the presidential election and is a member of his evangelical advisory board. “I love this guy!” Trump has said of Jeffress. Before the campaign, Trump, a Presbyterian, had no apparent connection to the pastor, who leads First Baptist Church in Dallas.
FRIDAY MORNING’S WORSHIP SERVICE
Friday morning’s worship service, scheduled to be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church across the street from the White House, will continue a modern Inauguration Day ritual. With the exception of Richard Nixon in 1973, every president since Franklin Roosevelt has attended spiritual services on Inauguration Day, many at St. John’s. The event is separate from both the inauguration itself and an interfaith service to be held Saturday at Washington National Cathedral, where an imam is among those who will offer prayers. Usually the Inauguration Day service draws little notice, much less controversy. But offering Jeffress such a prominent pulpit is likely to irk religious minorities, particularly Muslims, many of whom were already angered by the President-elect’s stoking of suspicions about Islam during the campaign.
“Pastor Jeffress is a unifying figure representing a diverse spectrum of Americans. Any attempt to vilify this religious leader is deeply disappointing and misplaced.”
The Council on American-Islamic relations disagreed. “Unfortunately, the choice of Rev. Jeffress is symptomatic of the incoming Trump administration’s inclusion of notorious Islamophobes in the transition team, in the picks for cabinet nominees and, beginning Friday, in the White House,” said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.
ROSS MURRAY CONCERNS
Ross Murray, director of programs for GLAAD, said he is also concerned about the inclusion of Jeffress in Friday’s service. “The inauguration and the people invited to pray at the inauguration speak to the values and the agenda of the incoming president. Jeffress’ anti-LGBTQ message is now going to be tied to this administration and its policies.”
Ironically, St. John’s is known for its tolerance toward homosexuality and other faiths. In November, León joined other Episcopalians in urging Trump to denounce a rash of hate crimes across the US, many apparently related to the election.
Even though the service will be private, Jeffress is an unusual choice to preach on Inauguration Day, an occasion when incoming presidents often try to unite the country’s diverse religious and social strands. In 2013, the Rev. Louie Giglio, an evangelical pastor, withdrew from Obama’s inauguration ceremony after an outcry about a sermon on homosexuality he had preached in the 1990s.
According to Leon, other participants in Friday’s service at St. John’s are a mix of old-guard evangelicals and Trump loyalists. They include:
- Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.;
- Focus on the Family founder James Dobson;
- Televangelist James Robison;
- Pastor Mark Burns, who has admitted to falsifying aspects of his biography, such as non-existent stints in the Army Reserve and a college degree he did not earn.
Later on Friday, at the inauguration itself, five Christians and one rabbi will offer public prayers and readings. While two of the pastors are prosperity preachers — a first for a presidential inauguration — none have ridiculed gays or other religions like Jeffress.
Jeffress’ beliefs about other faiths — that they are heresies and will not result in salvation — are shared by many evangelicals. But the harshness of his condemnations often confounds fellow conservatives.
“His sound bites are often incendiary, but his convictions — including the exclusivity of the gospel and the belief that homosexual behaviors are sinful — are clearly within the mainstream of American evangelicalism,” R. Albert Mohler, a leading Southern Baptist, said in 2013, after former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow backed out of an event at Jeffress’ church.
But Jeffress’ denunciations of gays and Muslims often stretch beyond the realms of sin and salvation.
THOUGHTS ON HOMOSEXUALITY
He has called homosexuality “degrading,” and linked it to pedophilia, alcoholism, depression and suicide, while insisting that his remarks are rooted in concern for gays — a way of showing them the true path to salvation. In a 2008 sermon, he urged his congregation to demonstrate compassion toward gays, even as he condemned their “filthy behavior.” Likewise, Jeffress has said that Islam incites violence and is “inspired by Satan himself,” while also arguing that “it is our love for Muslims that demands we speak the truth about Islam.” On occasion, Jeffress has taken aim at evangelicals themselves.
“I am getting sick and tired of these namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians who say they’re going to stay home (on Election Day) in November out of moral principle,” Jeffress said last year.
On January 3, Jeffress tweeted that he had met with the incoming president in Trump Tower, and predicted he will be “the most faith-friendly president in our nation’s history.”