Trump's Celebration of an Exclusionary Vision of Freedom

The president appeared at the Kennedy Center with Robert Jeffress—an evangelical leader with whom he’s bound by a shared antipathy to Muslims.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

On Saturday night, roughly 12 hours after tweeting that Mika Brzezinski was “dumb as a rock” and 12 hours before tweeting a video of himself side-slamming CNN, Donald Trump spoke at a “Celebrate Freedom” Concert at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Journalists covering the event focused on Trump’s jabs at the media. But they missed his veiled attack on another group of Americans whose First Amendment rights he threatens: Muslims.

In his remarks, Trump promised (in July!) that, “We’re going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” He referred repeatedly to “our God.” And he explained that, “we want to make sure that anyone who wants to join our country shares our values.”

By Trump’s standards, those comments might sound anodyne. But consider his audience. The Celebrate Freedom Concert was co-hosted by the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Warming up the crowd before Trump spoke were the church’s choir and orchestra and its senior pastor, Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s favorite evangelicals. During the campaign, when other Christian leaders were criticizing Trump’s vulgarity and religious illiteracy, Jeffress declared that, “I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find—and I believe that’s biblical.” Christians, he explained, should look for a “strongman.” Jeffress later said he was “getting sick and tired of these namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians who say they’re going to stay home in November out of moral principle.”

Trump rewarded Jeffress by inviting him to give the sermon at the church service he attended on inauguration morning. In his remarks, Jeffress told Trump that, “I don’t believe we have ever had a president with as many natural gifts as you.” In May, Trump invited Jeffress to the White House to watch him sign an executive order on religious liberty. As the Messiah College professor John Fea has noted, many Christian conservatives derided Trump’s move as “meaningless” and “useless.” Not Jeffress, who called Trump “the most faith-friendly president in U.S. history.” In introducing him at the Freedom Concert on Saturday night, Jeffress said the President “has not only met but he has exceeded our every expectation” and that “we thank God every day that he gave us a leader like Donald Trump”

But Jeffress and Trump share more than just a high opinion of Donald Trump. They share a deep antipathy toward Muslims and Islam. Jeffress, to be fair, isn’t exactly ecumenical when it comes to any other faith. He’s called Buddhism and Hinduism “false religions.” He’s said, “you can’t be saved being a Jew.” He’s called Mormonism “a cult.” And he’s called Catholicism a “counterfeit religion” invented by “Satan.”

But he’s saved his harshest and most extensive vitriol for Islam. In 2010, Jeffress criticized conservatives who opposed building an Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan merely because they considered the location insensitive. Jeffress offered a broader justification. “The only argument that makes sense against building that mosque,” he insisted, “is that Islam is an oppressive religion.” Islam, he added, “is a religion that promotes pedophilia.” It is “time to take off the gloves and stand up and tell the truth about this evil, evil religion.” Jeffress’ logic, needless to say, justifies opposing the construction of a mosque anywhere in the United States.

In 2015, Jeffress showed up Fox News to defend Ben Carson’s claim that a Muslim should not be president. Jeffress explained that he could only vote for a Muslim who disavowed “portions of the Koran” and “renounce[d] Mohammed.” That same year, Jeffress called the Koran “a false book,” Mohammed “a false prophet” and Islam “a false religion that will lead you to hell.” Last July, he declared that, “Mohammad was nothing but a bloodthirsty warlord.” And last March, he said President Obama was “once again assuming his favorite role, not as commander in chief but as defender in chief of Islam.” By contrast, Jeffress insisted, Donald Trump’s statement’s that “Islam hates us” was “absolutely true. There is something within Islam that is engendering this hatred toward the rest of the world … Trump is telling the politically incorrect truth.”

Jeffress also shares Trump’s enthusiasm for the words “Merry Christmas.” In 2015 he actually created a website that listed the Dallas-area businesses that used the salutation (they received the honorific “nice”) and those that did not (which were classified as “naughty”). But Trump’s promotion of the phrase takes on a different meaning at an event co-sponsored by an avowed anti-Muslim bigot. So do Trump’s references to “our God” and his declaration that “we want to make sure that anyone who wants to join our country shares our values.”

What values, after all, do Trump and Jeffress share? Not a commitment to marital fidelity. Not a commitment to honesty, charity, or humility. The value that unites them, above all—the one that led Jeffress to favor Trump over his more devout, more socially conservative Republican rivals during the primaries—is their shared belief that the American government should favor Christianity over Islam. That’s the odd form of “freedom” they celebrated together at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night.