Robert Jeffress is a prominent Southern Baptist pastor. He’s also a prime example of why people of the Christian faith are sometimes embarrassingly unequipped for American politics.
Jeffress has created quite a stir by declaring Mormonism is a “cult” and because Mitt Romney is a Mormon, evangelical Christians should support Texas Governor Rick Perry over the former Massachusetts governor. That’s not the only reason evangelical Christians should support Perry over Romney, Jeffress argued, but it’s a key one.
As a minister, Jeffress is certainly free to express his views of Mormonism to his congregation and in a Sunday school class—and if he had done so, hardly anyone would care. But it’s the clumsy and destructive manner in which Jeffress has injected religion into politics which has caused the stir. So let’s examine with some care the logic and implications of the positions set forth by Jeffress.
Just to be clear what we’re talking about: The Jeffress Standard is religious beliefs should trump competence when it comes to selecting a president (see this interview). This view is of course at odds with those of Martin Luther, who famously said he’d prefer to be ruled by a competent Turk over an incompetent Christian. And it’s also at odds with Jeffress’ own claim, which is that he would support Mitt Romney (whom he considers to be a member of a cult) over President Obama (whom he concedes is a Christian). So Jeffress favors voting for an evangelical Christian over a “cult” member—but favors voting for a member of a “cult” over a Christian who happens to be politically liberal? Where exactly in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is this stance articulated? The answer is: Nowhere.
The Reverend Jeffress is making this up as he goes along.
Let’s probe the Jeffress Standard a bit more carefully, shall we? Should we vote for a Christian over a person of the Jewish faith simply because of the matter of the divinity of Jesus? What about favoring an evangelical Christian over a Catholic over matters of purgatory and the authority of the papacy? And what about judging individual Christian candidates on their stance on, say, infant baptism? (No small matter to people of the Baptist faith.) Does the Reverend Jeffress believe we should give extra points to candidates who favor adult baptism? If so, does that apply only to presidential races or should it apply to state legislative races as well? How about for those running for sheriff?
Should Bret Baier, Brian Williams, and Wolf Blitzer set aside time during political debates to explore such pressing issues as transubstantiation, whether one is a pre-versus post-millennialist, and whether speaking in tongues is a sign that a 21st century Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit? If not, why not? Why wouldn’t Jeffress demand the “purity” of one’s theological views be relevant when it comes to judging political candidates?
While we’re at it, should late 18th century evangelical Christians have boycotted Thomas Jefferson as chief author of the Declaration of Independence, because he was hardly an orthodox Christian? If Stephen Douglas had been a more orthodox Christian than Abraham Lincoln, would a 19th-century Robert Jeffress have awarded more points to Douglas than to Lincoln? Where exactly does the Reverend Jeffress propose we draw these lines? Or does he simply believe evangelical Christians should be awarded points over Mormons but not over others? And let’s widen the aperture a bit. In Robert Jeffress’ America, should evangelical Christians boycott businesses run by non-Christians based on the view that those who deny the Lordship of Christ should not financially prosper? Should we choose where we eat pizza based on whether the owners of a particular restaurant believe in Biblical inerrancy?
One can begin to appreciate the thicket we would find ourselves in if we embraced the views and identity politics of the Reverend Jeffress.
There is in fact no sound reason to vote for a person based simply on their religious affiliation. Principles are obviously important in a candidate, and they may well be informed by religious faith. But the principles, not religious affiliations, are the things which have public relevance.
What Robert Jeffress has done—quite unwillingly, I’m sure—is to damage his own Christian witness by weighing in on politics with simplistic and unreflective comments. That is something that has happened time and time again when it comes to politics and prominent Christian ministers and activists, both liberal (like Jesse Jackson and Jim Wallis) and conservative (like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell). Often these individuals will take criticism of their views as a badge of honor and as a sign of their Biblical faithfulness rather than what it is: a sign of their shallowness and even, at times, ungraciousness of spirit.
Let me add a final word: One of the many wonders of America is that she has avoided, almost as if by an act of providence, divisions over matters of religious faith. Comity, tolerance, and respect for people who hold views different from your own is a sign of civility, not weakness.
In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington wrote these beautiful words: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
George Washington was a better general and a better president than Robert Jeffress. He was also, it turns out, a better theologian.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.