Donald Trump’s selection of Pastor Robert Jeffress to say a prayer at the opening of the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has drawn some negative attention.
I’m not a big fan of Jeffress, who has waved away concerns about Stormy Daniels. In one especially sycophantic and disturbing instance, Jeffress even used his church choir to perform an original ode to Donald Trump.
This is not the proper role of a Christian pastor.
But the interesting thing is that the specific charges being leveled at him now—the things that sound so bad to so many untrained ears—could probably have been lodged against respectable Christian theologians and ministers, ranging from Reinhold Niebuhr to Billy Graham.
For example, Kyle Griffin, a producer at MSNBC’s The Last Word summed it up thusly: “Robert Jeffress, who has called Islam a ‘false religion,’ says Mormonism is ‘wrong,’ and has preached that all non-Christians—including people who are Jewish—will not go to heaven, will give a blessing at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.”
In other words, he is an orthodox Christian.
Christianity is, by definition, an exclusive religion. Anyone can become a Christian, but doing so means accepting an exclusive doctrine. According to Christ, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This, by definition, means other religions are “false.” It’s a bold claim; there’s no denying that.
But a lot of religions make exclusive truth claims. Even the notion that all religions lead to God is, in an ironic sense, an exclusive truth claim. Nor is Christianity the only religion that views non-believers as adhering to a false religion. The term “infidel” comes to mind.
Having said that, while orthodox Christians hold to exclusivity, we (disclosure: I count myself as a believer, though I am a sinner and a work in progress) also believe in living side by side with people with whom we disagree. We consider every human to be created in the image of God. We believe in tolerance and pluralism. We pay as much attention to the other part of the Bible that says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” These declarations made in the Sermon on Mount are embraceable by almost everyone.
Mitt Romney fired off his own tweet, noting, “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.” (Note: At least Jeffress is consistent about his partisan support for the GOP standard bearer. Jeffress said those bad things about Mormonism in 2012, instructing evangelicals not to vote for him in the primary. But he would later endorse Romney in the general.)
Romney might want to single out Jeffress, but as Christianity Today has noted, back in 2010, a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors found that, “Three-quarters of Protestant pastors (75%) disagree with the statement, ‘I personally consider Mormons... to be Christians’…” This is to say that Jeffress’ views are not on the fringe of Christianity—unless Romney thinks two-thirds of Protestant pastors are “bigots.” (And while Romney is tossing the term around, the church doctrine he grew up with had its own share of problems.)
To be fair, a lot of Jeffress’s comments lack not only wisdom, but love. Jeffress is very comfortable making pronouncements about other people and other faiths (in very unhelpful ways that are likely not intended to actually help the listener). He says things in provocative ways that stir up anger and division. Donald Trump shouldn’t have picked him for this job. It’s true that some people are looking for reasons to attack orthodox Christianity, but Jeffress invites such attacks. He was not the right man to represent America at this important event.
Jeffress might be inelegant in the way he talks about the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, but those beliefs are far from being his most egregious and unbiblical statements. It’s his baptizing of Trump’s sins as good that bother me most. That, alone should have disqualified him from giving this prayer. But of course, that is probably the main reason he was invited to deliver it.