Late last week, Outfront Media took down a couple of billboards it owns in Dallas. Normally that wouldn't be news, but the ads on these billboards belonged to First Baptist Church of Dallas and depict its pastor, Robert Jeffress, so a storm began brewing immediately.
That storm struck in earnest Monday as Jeffress made the conservative media rounds. The billboards, which promoted Jeffress' upcoming sermon titled "America Is a Christian Nation," came down, according to the pastor, because Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and The Dallas Morning News' city columnist Robert Wilonsky whipped up public sentiment against the billboards' message.
"After The Dallas Morning News article, and especially the mayor's comments in that article, Outfront said they were just being hammered and had to remove the billboards," Jeffress said.
On June 7, Wilonsky quoted Rawlings in a column critical of the billboards' message.
"That is not the Christ I follow," Rawlings said. "It's not the Dallas I want to be — to say things that do not unite us but divide us. I never heard those words, that voice come out of Christ. Just the opposite. I was brought up to believe: Be proud of yours, but do not diminish mine."
Both Wilonsky and Rawlings told the Observer on Monday afternoon that they'd had no contact with Outfront — which did not return a call from the Observer for this story — and weren't part of any conspiracy to get the billboards taken down.
“I don’t oppose the billboards. My Christian faith teaches me not to be judgmental and to love those that are different than me," Rawlings said Monday through his spokesman, Scott Goldstein. "I also believe that as an American I can honor my devout Christian beliefs and still respect the fact that this is a diverse world and I represent a diverse constituency. Those two thoughts can go together. I don’t believe that that billboard captured those important nuances."
Jeffress says he supports the right of the billboard company to refuse to put up a message, citing the Supreme Court decision that upheld a Colorado bakery's right to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. But Rawlings went too far when he commented publicly on First Baptist's billboards, the pastor says.
"You don't hear them objecting to the multitude of billboards promoting strip clubs that degrade and objectify women," Jeffress says. "They didn't say a word about the atheist billboard at Christmas time saying 'skip church' and 'it's all fake news,' but for some reason they say that they need to weigh in on a sermon title — 'America is Christian Nation' — saying that's hateful and divisive and doesn't represent Dallas."
Jeffress, who appeared on Todd Starnes' Fox News Radio show Monday morning to talk about the billboards before taking to Fox News TV on Monday night to plead his case, says the controversy over the signage could end up benefiting First Baptist.
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"Oh sure, absolutely [it can be good for the church]," Jeffress says. "I think we just posted a clip promoting this Sunday where I thank Mayor Rawlings and Robert Wilonsky for helping us promote this Sunday's message."
Even if Jeffress and his flock stand to gain from the attention, Wilonsky says he has no intention to stop covering the Trump-supporting pastor.
"He's a significant presence in this city and in this country whether we like it or not," Wilonsky says. "He's certainly open to criticism. I believe that's all I did in this instance."