Is there another Dallasite who has made the national news as often as Dr. Robert Jeffress this year? The 60-year-old pastor of 12,000-member Dallas First Baptist has become the most prominent evangelical leader supporting Donald Trump, earning him rebukes from other church leaders, such as when he commented last month that Republicans who refuse to support Trump under any circumstances are “fools” motivated by pride. Jeffress took his support for Trump to another level last week when he backed the candidate’s statement that women who have abortions should be punished in some way if abortion is ever outlawed. “If you believe abortion is murder,” Jeffress told The Dallas Morning News, “it’s not outlandish to suggest the woman bears some culpability.”
Jeffress, who moonlights as a Fox News commentator, spoke at length with writer Julie Lyons in March for her story on evangelicals and the election. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:
Would it be correct to say you’ve endorsed Donald Trump?
No. I’ve been careful to say, even at my appearances when I’ve introduced him before, that I can’t officially endorse a candidate. But look, I’m not playing games here. The word “endorse” has a very specific meaning with the Internal Revenue Service. It has a very specific meaning with the political world, too. So although I cannot officially endorse Donald Trump, I’m very supportive of him. I think he would make a great president of the United States.
And I’ve heard your reasons why, at least the ones you expressed at the Trump rally in Fort Worth.
I would have to say, my reasons go beyond what I said in Fort Worth. That was very impromptu — I had no idea he was going to call me up. But I think there are three things that are attracting people to Donald Trump. First of all, I think his leadership. When I look at the four candidates [Marco Rubio had just dropped out], only two of those have actually led something of significance in their lives. John Kasich las led the state of Ohio. Donald Trump has led a great business. When I’m looking for a leader, I want someone who has a track record of having led something. Secondly, I think, his outsider status. I think that’s very appealing to a lot of voters, including evangelicals. You know, Kasich, Cruz, and up until yesterday, Rubio, for all their talk of being outsiders, were still part of the political system, and I think that is a net negative in this election cycle. And thirdly, I think a lot of people are attracted to Trump’s temperament. They want somebody who is decisive and somebody who is actually determined to take care of the problems that we feel are pressing the nation. A couple weeks ago, Max Lucado, a very respected Christian, wrote an op-ed denouncing Trump because of his tone and because of his vocabulary. When I’m looking for a leader who’s gonna sit across the negotiating table from a nuclear Iran, or who’s gonna be intent on destroying ISIS, I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament or his tone or his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. They don’t want a Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.
What kind of response have you gotten from your congregation for your support of Trump?
Well, our congregation is diverse in the sense that we have a lot of Cruz people, we have Trump people, we had some Rubio people, we even have a sprinkling of Hillary people. I made a deal with my congregation early on that I would never bring politics into the church, and I never have. I told our congregation that when they come to First Baptist Church, leave your politics at the doorstep, and when we come together, we’re going to talk about the only leader who makes lasting change, and that’s Jesus Christ. Now I do talk about issues — I’ve always talked about issues that are biblically based, like the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, religious liberty — but I have never and would never endorse a candidate from the pulpit.
So you have a different philosophy of using the pulpit in the church as opposed to your public platform outside the church.
Absolutely. When I am in that pulpit, that is a sacred place, and all I should be talking about is issues and truths that emanate directly from the Bible. If I started preaching politics from the pulpit, our church would empty overnight. That’s not why people come to church. They want to hear the word of God being proclaimed, not the word of Robert Jeffress.
Have you had any members leave because of your statements concerning Trump?
Oh, I’m sure we have. I have no doubt, and we’ve had other people who have come in. But everybody is free to make their own choice there.
So you say you’ve spoken with Trump multiple times. You don’t believe he’s racist or bigoted?
No, I don’t believe he’s racist at all. Really, that charge has never really been leveled against him. Now he makes strong statements about building a wall, and about halting Muslim immigration in our country temporarily, but he does not have a history of racism, and most people who know him know that’s not true about him. And look, he has a large coalition of African-American pastors who are supporting him, and one of the meetings I was in, in Trump Tower, I would say a large group of those ministers there were African-American pastors.
Did Donald Trump ask you to appear at the rally in Fort Worth? How did that come about?
Actually, that was the fourth time I’ve appeared with him. The one in Fort Worth, I was just asked to deliver the prayer, and I did. And then I was out in the audience when he called me up on the stage.
So they approached you about praying.
Right. They were reaching out to me back in August. And he tells the story a lot of times when I appear with him — he says, I didn’t know Pastor Jeffress until about nine months ago, and I started watching him on TV, and he said at first, I didn’t like what he said — I wasn’t perfect. And then I started listening to him, and I liked what he said, and I told my staff, we need to reach out to Pastor Jeffress. You know, we have met several times since that time.
I think one thing that goes against stereotype is you are supporting someone who is not an evangelical.
That’s right. And there are a lot of factors that go into the choice of a candidate for a Christian. The Bible does not give a checklist for who to vote for, because when the Bible was written there was no such thing as voting. So I think certainly a candidate’s faith is one consideration, but it’s not always the most important consideration. I think character, I think competency, leadership … I think electability is an issue. I think you have to factor all of those into the equation. I think every Christian is free to make his own choice about a candidate, but really no Christian is free to condemn other Christians for their choice of candidate. As the Apostle Paul said, let every man be convinced in his own mind.
You said in the Fort Worth rally that Trump would be an advocate for religious freedom for evangelicals. Do you believe that religious freedoms have eroded under President Obama?
[Pauses.] I think religious freedoms are being eroded. … I’m not gonna blame President Obama for that. I think it is the bent of our country to take away religious rights. I don’t think people ought to be forced to take photographs or bake cakes and participate in gay weddings, for example. I think that’s an erosion of religious liberty. And I think the free exercise of religion is what the First Amendment promises. It’s not confined to what you do on Sundays from 11 to 12 in your church or your synagogue. The Constitution says nothing about freedom of worship — it says free exercise of religion, and that’s vastly different. … It means [in] your everyday life to exercise your faith, not just in your own church or your own home. It means your business and every area of your life. That’s what the free exercise of religion is. It doesn’t confine it to a silo of your church or your synagogue.
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How do you see that religious freedoms are in decline?
I would say the effort by the ACLU to sandblast crosses off war memorials. The attempt to remove nativity scenes or Ten Commandments displays. All of that is an outright restriction of religious liberty. And I would remind you that this wholesale effort to restrict the expression of religion in public is something that just began about 60 years ago — 1962 — the Supreme Court decision removing prayer from the schools, followed by Bible reading, followed in 1980 by the Ten Commandments. [He cites the specific cases.] What changed? Did the Constitution change? I don’t think so. What has changed is we’ve allowed secularists to hijack and pervert the First Amendment into something it was never intended to be. The First Amendment says nothing about people having an inherent right to be free from religious expression. It is about the freedom of religious expression. So, I would not blame President Obama for this. This all-out assault on religious freedom began before President Obama ever took office.
In your conversations with Donald Trump, what has persuaded you that he would be a champion of religious freedom in the ways you just discussed?
Well, he has said that be believes that Christians and Christianity are being marginalized. He always gets a laugh when he says, “We’re gonna start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ in America again.” We all know what he’s talking about. But we get that, and I think he’s concerned about the martyrdom of Christians around the world being executed by ISIS, but I do think he thinks Christians are being marginalized in this country as well. … He is somebody who gets it and would be balanced in his treatment of religious liberty, but I think that issue and his commitment to the pro-life movement would make him appealing to evangelicals.
Why did you choose to support him over Cruz?
Well, now look, I like Ted Cruz. He has spoken to my church before, and his dad has taught in my church before, and I think he’s a very, very, very gifted person — very intelligent, great debater. My own calculation, I’m afraid that our country has moved so far to the left in the last four to eight years that I’m not sure Ted Cruz could get elected. That’s more of a commentary on the state of our nation than it is Ted Cruz. I could very well be wrong about that, but I’m just saying that electability is one of the factors I would look at.
Listening to the news coverage of evangelicals, is there anything that has stuck out to you as particularly bothersome or inaccurate?
I don’t get bothered by the media. [Laughs.] There is nothing in the media that makes me lose any sleep at night.