How much has Dallas really changed since the 1950s? Deep down? At heart?
Last Friday The Dallas Morning News ran a mish-mash editorial that finally wound up apologizing for and defending the city’s recent semi-official association with Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas First Baptist Church.
Jeffress you know. He is known nationally as a walking baptismal font of bigotry and hatred spewed both in his own church here and on national talk-TV.
The Dallas police chief, in a move he later sought to disavow, appeared recently with Jeffress and former Dallas mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Tom Leppert to announce some kind of new brother-and-sistership between First Baptist and the police department.
The Morning News editorial subtly castigated the Dallas LGBT community for its denunciation of the pact and for LGBT leaders’ insistence that the city clearly and officially disavow Jeffress as City Hall’s new favorite municipal moral partner. “He’s a preacher,” the editorial said, “and is free to interpret God’s views any way he chooses.”
What does that even mean? Do they mean he has a constitutional right to say horrible things? OK. But being a preacher doesn’t give him a right to say horrible things and escape condemnation. He can’t speak evil and escape the opprobrium his words earn him.
This is a man who recently said that transgender-friendly businesses are a greater threat to America than ISIS. His history of hateful verbal assaults on LGBT people is paired with a history of religious bigotry.
In a 2010 interview with the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Jeffress had this to say:
“And if we get into that idea and fall into that trap, then we say well, we can't say anything that's going to offend people, why, if we preach that homosexuality is an abomination to God, we better not preach that because that's going to offend the gays or people who know gay people. If we tell people what the Bible says, that every other religion in the world is wrong — Islam is wrong, it is a heresy from the pit of hell; Mormonism is wrong, it is a heresy from the pit of hell; Judaism, you know, you can't be saved being a Jew…”
… and on in that vein. And on.
This man is being proposed as a moral and religious mentor for our police, a proposal to which the News said in its editorial, “We welcome the warm embrace church members are offering Dallas officers.”
The paper said some other equivocating things to cover itself, proposing, for example, that on the next occasion when top city officials appear with Jeffress to announce a major joint initiative, perhaps the city officials should mention that they don’t agree with the homophobia or the religious bigotry.
We try to imagine a check presentation photo — you know, Jeffress and the mayor posing with one of those giant mock bank checks to show how much money Jeffrress is kicking in to put Bibles and anti-abortion videos in all of the city’s patrol cars. And then what? Maybe there could be a little fine-print placard posed against the mayor’s ankle saying, “But not the homophobia part.”
How about not doing the scene? How about not accepting the check? How about a clear demonstration of moral repugnance?
Jeffress is a big Donald Trump supporter. In its mincing, word-pinching, side-stepping sort of a way, the News has kind of maybe a little bit condemned Trump for his professed ignorance of the KKK. You think? Now there was a tough one.
But even at that, the paper, even with its new from-out-of-town digital editor, still hews to its old two-rivers rule. They will take on the tough stories, as long as those tough stories take place at least two rivers away from Dallas. But as soon as a story gets back inside the city limits, the paper has got the polite willies again, absolutely no pun intended.
It’s important to put both Jeffress and his church in the proper theological, moral and historical context, far to the right of most Baptists nationally. Perhaps this is a good moment to remember the character and profile of Jeffress’ best known predecessor at First Baptist, The Reverend W.A. Criswell.
In 1956, when the battle over racial segregation was at its height, Criswell, then pastor of First Baptist, shocked and repelled national Baptist leaders including evangelist Billy Graham with two fiery segregationist speeches delivered to the Baptist National Conference on Evangelism at Columbia, South Carolina.
In those speeches Criswell said it was important for Americans to maintain not merely strict racial segregation but also religious segregation. He said social mixing of religions was the work of “outsiders” who, if unchecked, would “get in your family.” He urged people of different religious persuasions to “stick to your own kind.
“We built our lives according to deep intimacies that are dear and precious to us,” Criswell said. “We don’t want to be forced by laws and statutes to cross into those intimate things where we don’t want to go.”
Criswell said it was a false doctrine to believe that black people and white people possess the same soul before God. He said “the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man” was a “spurious doctrine.”
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“Any man who says he is altogether integrated is soft in the head. Let them integrate. Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they’re all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.”
In Columbia, Criswell was only saying the same things he said every Sunday in Dallas, but his words caused shock and dismay among the national Baptist gathering. Billy Graham issued a statement saying he had never agreed with Criswell on race. Dr. Stewart A. Norman of the Southeastern Baptist Seminary at Wake Forest addressed the evangelism conference specifically to condemn Criswell.
Norman said Criswell’s voice, “sounds more of weakness than of confident strength, as if, from fear and real uneasiness, we turn upon our fellow Christians with scathing criticisms.”
When we remember that history of Dallas First Baptist and then ponder the unbroken parallels with Jeffress today, we see that First Baptist not only fails to renounce or learn from its past but continues enthusiastically to inculcate the very same values that Criswell enunciated in the '50s. And in this time of resurgent hate speech and intolerance, egged on by Trump, it should be no surprise that a man from Dallas First Baptist finds himself once more called to the national pulpit of hate.
What does it mean, then, if the best the city’s only daily newspaper can do about that is offer polite equivocation? I think it means First Baptist is not the only major institution in this city that hasn’t learned from the past or changed all that much at heart since the darkest days of the 1950s.