Last Friday, President Donald Trump tweeted out an endorsement of a “great book” by “a wonderful man”: A Place Called Heaven, a new work on the afterlife by Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist church in Dallas. Jeffress is a member of Trump’s informal council of evangelical advisors and has backed many of the president’s controversial decisions, including war of words with North Korea. “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,” Jeffress said in August.
Then, last Saturday, Jeffress announced on Twitter that he would host the Fox News anchor Sean Hannity at his church on Sunday. Critics ranging from the political commentator Erick Erickson to Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska replied caustically. According to Erickson, the pastor “seems more committed to Trump’s America than Jesus’s eternity.” In an interview, Jeffress responded critically, wondering if Sasse and others would criticize religious leaders who were involved in the American revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the civil-rights movement.
Jeffress, who sees himself as Trump’s “most vocal and visible evangelical spokesman,” embodies a distinct school of thought about the way Christians should relate to politics. During his sermon the day Hannity came, Jeffress spoke about Supreme Court decisions that he felt had derailed the country. He encouraged his parishioners to be politically engaged: “How do we push back against evil in the world?” he asked. “One way we do it in our country, a major way we do it, is through the government officials that we elect.”
Jeffress peppered in little digs at the left, referring to the “pinhead lawyers from the ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation” and later introducing Hannity as “Rachel Maddow’s worst nightmare.” But he was most focused on what he saw as widespread cultural decay. “We have allowed the atheists, the infidels, the humanists to seize control of this country and pervert our Constitution into something the Founders never intended,” he said. “And we have to say enough to that.”
None of this is incidental to Jeffress’s project of teaching people about “a place called heaven”: He believes God calls on Christians to engage in and shape politics. To some, like Hannity, this influence is crucial: “There are too few pastors … that are willing to step out [and] take a strong political position,” he said at First Baptist last week. “If we don’t save the culture, we’re going to lose our country.” But not all Christians agree.
I spoke with Jeffress about his book, his views on the president, and how he thinks about evangelicals who might feel alienated Jeffress’s approach to politics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: You write about the importance of judicial righteousness—being right with God—and ethical righteousness—being right as you act in the world.
How do you make sure you’re acting with ethical righteousness as you present yourself in the world?
Robert Jeffress: That’s the struggle every follower of Jesus Christ has. It’s a daily struggle to always make sure I’m aligning my conduct with what the word of God teaches. All of us are sinners who can only be saved by God’s grace. But I don’t think Christians who have received judicial righteousness have a license to do whatever they want as they await their departure to heaven. Every true believer has a responsibility to live out his faith in his daily life.
“One way we push back against evil is through the leaders we elect.”
Green: You said during a recent sermon that it’s important for Christians to be politically active. How is this related to that call to ethical righteousness—and to follow Jesus and the path to heaven?
Jeffress: There’s a dichotomy in Scripture that Jesus expressed in John 17. He said to his heavenly father, “They are not to be of the world … but I’m not asking you to take them out of the world.” We, as Christians, are really citizens of two worlds: Our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, but God has left us here on earth for a reason.
In Matthew 5:3-16, he describes our function in the world as salt and light. In Jesus’s day, salt was a preservative that was used to delay the decay of meat. Jesus has left us here to be a preservative in society, to push back against evil, to slow the decay of our world, so that we have longer to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I don’t think that isolating ourselves from the world is what God has called us to do. In our country, one way we push back against evil is through the leaders we elect and the policies they enact.
Green: It seems like that can be complicated in practice. We saw this over the weekend when Senator Ben Sasse and others criticized your decision to host the Fox News anchor Sean Hannity on a Sunday morning at your church. Here’s what Senator Sasse said:
By the way, we're talking about Sunday here... (You can be free from politics.) https://t.co/4u50JftVrS— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) October 22, 2017
What do you think about his perspective?
Jeffress: Well, I have several reactions to that. First of all, what business is it of a United States senator as to what any local church chooses to do in its service? It is chilling to think that a senator would involve himself and criticize a church of which he is not a part.
The second thing is that he tweeted this out on a Saturday night before we’d even had our service. The fact is, if you’ll listen, Sean Hannity didn’t say anything about politics. I interviewed him about his faith in Jesus Christ.
And the third problem is the presumption that Christians should not be involved in the political process. I wonder if Senator Sasse would criticize the pastors who led the way in the American revolution; the pastors who led the way in the abolition of slavery; or pastors like Martin Luther King Jr. who led the civil-rights movement. Would Senator Sasse tell them they’re being too political and that has no business in the church? I doubt it.
“I never preach partisan politics in our service.”
Green: During your conversation at First Baptist Church with Sean Hannity last Sunday, you emphasized “how grateful I am for a courageous man like Sean Hannity, who is out in the public square pushing back against evil, taking every kind of attack you can imagine from people.”
Why did you invite a political pundit to speak in your church, and how does that connect with your teachings about getting into heaven?
Jeffress: This is something we do two or three times a year. We usually will invite a well-known Christian to come for an interview segment—somebody that our people will be familiar with. And I talk to them about their faith.
Several weeks ago we had Ainsley Earhardt from Fox and Friends, who is a strong Christian. The day Ainsley spoke, and after my interview with Sean, when I gave the invitation for people to become Christians, dozens and dozens of people came forward professing their faith in Jesus Christ.
We use this as a hook to encourage our people to invite guests to our church—guests who aren’t Christians, or guests who may be looking for a church home. I preach the sermon, and I’m always careful to present the plan of salvation and give opportunities to people to trust in Christ as their savior.
Green: You remarked during your interview with Sean Hannity that you have Democrats in your congregation, who are just as welcome there as Republicans.
Green: Do you ever worry, though, that preaching about politics may be alienating to those who don’t identify as political conservatives? For example, on Sunday, you preached about Supreme Court cases on school prayer, abortion, and gay marriage that went terribly wrong.
Jeffress: I never preach partisan politics in our service. Any issue that I talk about, like I did Sunday, are biblical issues. The issue of abortion, the issue of the mention of God in the public square, the issue of the sanctity of the family: Those are biblical issues. Yes, they intersect with politics, because governmental policies either support a biblical stance or they denigrate a biblical stance. But these are not Republican or Democrat issues. These are biblical issues.
“Look, we don’t elect presidents on the basis of whether or not they’re role models.”
Green: Are you worried about young evangelical Christians who may disagree with what President Trump stands for and feel alienated from the church because of evangelical leaders’ wholehearted support for him?
Jeffress: Well, I don’t worry about it, because it hasn’t affected our church at all. We opened this new campus four years ago—a $135 million new campus in downtown Dallas—and we thought the space would last us for a long time. But we’re already out of space, and the fastest-growing area of our church is our young-adult area. Our family center is out of room with children and pre-schoolers.
I don’t talk about President Trump, and I certainly didn’t talk about candidate Trump, from our pulpit. During the whole campaign, I may have mentioned President Trump one or two times in passing. People who think I stand up and talk about Donald Trump every Sunday certainly don’t listen to my messages.
Green: Do you believe that President Trump is a good role model for Christians?
Jeffress: I think he’s a great role model for doing what he’s been called to do, and that is being president of the United States. He is doing a fantastic job in that way. I think he is showing strong leadership.
Look, we don’t elect presidents on the basis of whether or not they’re role models. I’ve said before, to the president, I might not select him to be a children’s Sunday School teacher. But that’s not what we were electing President Trump to do. We were electing him to be commander in chief and the leader of our country. I think he’s doing a fantastic job at that.
[Jeffress followed up in an email to say: “I do think President Trump is a positive role model for children. Specifically, I would be happy for my children (and now, my coming grandchildren) to emulate his work ethic, leadership skills, and patriotism.”]
Green: As you know, a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a recent White House press briefing about why President Trump would support you, given your allegedly anti-Catholic views. Do you have a response to that, and do you believe, as you’ve said, that the contemporary Catholic Church reflects “the genius of Satan” in its teaching of Christianity?
Jeffress: I’ve been very clear: I believe that nobody goes to heaven in a group. We go one by one based on our relationship to Jesus Christ. I believe there will be millions of Catholics in heaven who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.
I love my fellow Catholics who are brothers and sisters in Christ. I work alongside them in religious-liberty issues. I walk alongside them in pro-life rallies. I count them as great friends. In today’s world, not all Baptists believe all of Baptist theology, and I don’t think all Catholics believe all of Catholic theology. Faith is a very personal thing, and I just know there are going to be millions of Catholics in heaven because they’ve trusted Christ as their savior. I consider them friends.
Green: Why do you think reporters and critics perceive that you have some sort of hateful bias?
Jeffress: It was no surprise that this attack came immediately after I appeared on Lou Dobbs Friday night, defending the president against criticism by Congresswoman Wilson. An hour or two later, the president tweeted out a nice word about me and my book, A Place Called Heaven. Immediately, many in the left-wing media—and it was the left-wing, liberal media—attacked me as being anti-Catholic by pulling out quotes from years ago that were either manufactured or taken out of context.
I think it was very clearly an attempt to discredit the president by discrediting his most vocal and visible evangelical spokesman.
Green: Do you think the president has read your book about going to heaven?
Jeffress: Well, I gave it to him about a month ago in the Oval Office. You’d need to ask him about that.