The press often describes the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church, as President Donald Trump’s “spiritual adviser,” and a brief glance at the reverend’s resume helps explain why the two get along so well.
Now a frequent Fox News guest, Jeffress rose to national prominence in 1998, when he was pastor of the much smaller First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas. There, he led a campaign to remove two gay-friendly children’s books, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate, from a local library, eventually pressuring city council to move them to the adult section — an order a court later ruled violated the constitution.
Jeffress’s crusade against children’s lit increased the membership at his Wichita Falls church and helped him secure his ministerial appointment in Dallas. From this more influential pulpit, Jeffress has predicted that LGBTQ rights activists “will pave the way for that future world dictator, the Antichrist, to persecute and martyr Christians without any repercussions whatsoever.” He characterized the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which declared laws banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional, as “the greatest, most historic landmark blunder in the history of the United States Supreme Court.”
But Jeffress is also an equal-opportunity bigot. He has labeled the Catholic Church a satanic cult that will serve as an instrument of the Antichrist in the end times. He insisted in a 2010 interview that “you can’t be saved being a Jew.” The same year, he called Mormonism “a heresy from the pit of hell” and linked Muslims with child molestation. “The deep, dark, dirty secret of Islam: It is a religion that promotes pedophilia — sex with children,” he sermonized. “This so-called prophet Muhammad raped a nine-year-old girl — had sex with her.”
His words have been so extreme so often that conservative abortion opponent and failed NFL quarterback Tim Tebow backed out of a speaking engagement at First Baptist in 2013, after the pastor’s anti-gay and antisemitic fulminations resurfaced. Tebow may have blanched, but First Baptist has provided a platform for other right-wing media darlings: Fox News pundit Sean Hannity and Fox and Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt have both shared the stage with Jeffress.
The controversial reverend returned to national headlines in January when he defended Trump’s complaints about immigrants from “shithole countries.” Jeffress argued that the president’s only crime was vulgarity: “apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target,” he told televangelist Pat Robertson’s CBN News. “As commander-in-chief, President Trump has a responsibility to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.”
Jeffress’s adulation has not been unrequited. Last year, Trump invited the First Baptist Church choir and orchestra to a Kennedy Center concert honoring veterans, where they performed Jeffress’s original composition, “Make America Great Again.” This cringeworthy, quasi-religious hymn to the president and ultranationalism, which even reactionary columnist Erick Erickson said crossed “the line into idolatry,” features lyrics such as:
Like the mighty eagle that is rising on the wind
Soaring t’wards our destiny
Hearts and voices blend
With a mighty melody
Oh let the song begin
And make America great again.
Trump has twice retweeted live performances of the song, and, in October, the president endorsed Jeffress’s A Place Called Heaven on Twitter, describing the work as a “great book” by a “wonderful man.”
Jeffress’s allegiance to Trump fits well within First Baptist’s history and traditions. Established in 1868, when Dallas was still just a village lacking railway connections to the larger world, First Baptist has promoted segregation, black disenfranchisement, religious intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, and economic inequality for its entire 150-year history.
The Pro-Slavery Congregation
First Baptist’s reactionary racial politics echo the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) origins as a pro-slavery denomination. In 1845, northern Baptists belonging to the loosely organized Triennial Convention objected to appointing a slave-owning church elder as a missionary. White Southern members split from the organization in protest and established the SBC.
Not all Texas Baptists joined the new convention, but the denomination established a strong foothold in the antebellum period and the state’s Baptists — regardless of convention — overwhelmingly supported slavery and Texas’s secession in 1861. After the war and emancipation, some Baptist churches voted to bar freedmen from membership, but one congregation in Colorado County desegregated in 1866 because African-American believers might fall into heresy without the guidance of “the superior intelligence of the whites.”
Such racial paternalism persisted decades later at Dallas’s First Baptist Church under the leadership of George Truett, who became pastor there in 1897 and remained until his death in 1944.
Truett established First Baptist’s tradition of politically involved preachers. As Dallas grew from a sleepy backwater of about 10,000 inhabitants in 1880 to a bustling regional epicenter of almost 160,000 in 1920, Truett feared that an increasingly diverse population of African Americans, Italians, Latino/as, Jews, and Catholics would transform the city into Babylon on the Trinity River.
Between 1911 and 1925, he repeatedly warned that the United States was “menaced by our vast and fast-growing cities,” which had become dens of “lawlessness.” Urban centers drew “the alien populations of the world with their strange customs and beliefs and ideals and sentimentalisms.” He charged that Catholic immigrants rejected separation of church and state and were secretly plotting papal control of the American government.
Truett referred to African Americans as “darkies,” but his racism was more condescending than malevolent. He stayed silent after the March 3, 1910, lynching of Allen Brooks, a black man accused of raping a three-year-old girl and did not lend his prestigious voice to the Dallas County Citizens League, an organization formed to oppose the Ku Klux Klan, which dominated city politics in the early 1920s.
Truett’s racial sins were more of omission than commission — not so W. A. Criswell, next in line for First Baptist’s pulpit, who emerged as a prominent, and often crude, crusader for Jim Crow.
During a speech at a Baptist Conference on Evangelism in Columbia, South Carolina on February 21, 1956, Criswell called integration the work of “outsiders” in “dirty shirts” who, if not stopped, would “get in your family.” He went on to attack the “spurious doctrine” of the “universal Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man,” before explaining that he wanted to keep his daughter safe “from people who are iniquitous and vile and dirty and low down.” The pastor alerted his audience to the Civil Rights Movement’s success with a crude joke: “the NAACP has got those Texans on the run so much, that they dare not pronounce the word chigger [a biting mite] any longer,” he said. “It has to be cheegro.”
From Dallas to the White House
By 1960, Criswell’s public prejudices extended beyond African Americans. He began insisting that John F. Kennedy’s presidential bid posed a mortal threat to American Protestantism. “The election of a Catholic as president would mean the end of religious liberty in America,” Criswell warned in a July 3, 1960, sermon at First Baptist Church.
While Kennedy argued that the separation of church and state meant that he should not be denied the White House because of his faith, Criswell claimed that Kennedy would use the presidency as a Trojan horse. “[T]he Roman Church wins most of its victories with the weapon of time,” Criswell predicted. “If Kennedy wins … then the door is open for another Catholic later who gives the Pope his ambassador, the church schools state support, and finally, recognition of one church above all in America.”
Criswell’s fears that Catholics would impose theocracy in America stirred one member of First Baptist to action. Oil billionaire and bigamist H. L. Hunt, who lived in a mansion deliberately designed to be a larger version of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, funded a right-wing radio talk show called LIFELINE, broadcast on more than 80 television and 150 radio stations nationwide. (Hunt once raged at the show’s host, Dan Smoot, after Smoot claimed that democracy was “a political outgrowth of the teachings of Jesus Christ.” Hunt yelled that democracy was the devil’s handiwork, a “phony liberal form of watered-down communism.”)
Criswell focused on disenfranchising African Americans, but his richest congregant wanted to bar the poor of all races from voting. In 1960, Hunt authored Alpaca, a novel set in a utopian Latin American nation where citizens received votes based on their wealth: if they paid more taxes, they got more votes, and if they worked for the government or depended on government services, they lost votes. He dubbed his scheme “premium suffrage.”
The same year Hunt mailed out copies of Alpaca to an unenthusiastic readership, he also distributed 200,000 copies of Criswell’s anti-Catholic sermon to sound a warning about a prospective Kennedy presidency. To Criswell’s and Hunt’s sorrow, however, the sermon inspired a backlash against religious bigotry, building sympathy for the Democratic candidate.
Long before it became the norm among the Christian right, Criswell married his fundamentalism to Republican Party politics, a loyalty he would retain for the rest of his life. After supporting Nixon in 1960, Criswell spent the rest of the decade fulminating against antiwar protesters. He called “hippies, beatniks, [and] peaceniks” “traitors” and eventually visisted Nixon in the White House for dinner.
The Times, They Were A-Changing
After the biggest legal battles against legal segregation and African-American disenfranchisement had ended, Criswell began distancing himself from his earlier support for Jim Crow. In wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, the Southern Baptist Convention admitted to fostering “cultural patterns” that denied African Americans “equality of recognition and opportunity.” As the newly elected SBC president, Criswell supported the resolution.
In his autobiography, he claimed to have always loved African Americans, attributing his support for Jim Crow to a commitment to the principle of free association:
I wish with all my heart that I had not spoken on behalf of segregation in any form or any place.… I had come to the profound conclusion that to separate by coercion the body of Christ on the basis of skin pigmentation was unthinkable, unchristian, and unacceptable to God.
Criswell cut himself loose from Jim Crow but held onto to his anti-Catholicism, using Roe v. Wade to distinguish himself from his enemies. If the Catholic Church opposed abortion in all cases, Criswell stood on the pro-choice side: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
But his abortion politics shifted in the late 1970s, when he needed a political crusade to replace Jim Crow. By the time the Criswell Study Bible was published in 1979, Criswell had plunged into what later became known as the “culture wars.” He now saw abortion, along with feminism and the gay rights movement, as a coordinated assault on the divinely sanctioned, male-led “traditional family.”
In this period, Criswell dedicated himself to rolling back the social revolutions of the 1960s, adding aggressive homophobia to his repertoire. In the spring of 1979, a Dallas ABC affiliate canceled its weekly broadcasts of sermons by another area pastor, James Robison, who, in the aftermath of Harvey Milk’s assassination, called gays “queers,” described homosexuality as “despicable,” and told his live TV audiences that gay men sexually recruited young boys and murdered them.
Prominent right-wing pastors across the nation, including Criswell and Jerry Falwell, rallied 11,000 people to the Dallas Convention Center and successfully pressured the station to resume broadcasting Robison’s program.
Events like these laid the groundwork for the major Christian conservative movements that would help propel Ronald Reagan to the White House. In fact, the candidate visited the 1980 National Affairs Briefing (NAB) in Dallas, which served partly as a tribute to Criswell.
The gathering resembled a wedding ceremony between the evangelical Christian right and the post-Watergate Republican Party. At a press conference, Reagan expressed his personal doubts about the theory of evolution, a favorite theme of Criswell’s. Then he thrilled the audience — which included Criswell, James Robison, one-time segregationist Democrat and born-again Republican senator Jesse Helms, anti–Equal Rights Amendment activist Phyllis Schlafly, and televangelists Falwell and Pat Robertson — at his August 22 speech.
Reagan said that “traditional Christian values, based on the moral teachings of religion are undergoing what is perhaps their most serious challenge in our nation’s history.” But the biggest applause line, and perhaps the most historically important, came right at the beginning, when Reagan said, “This is a nonpartisan gathering and so I know you can’t endorse me but I … want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.”
Reagan electrified the Dallas audience and Christian conservatives across the country. That November, according to pollster Lou Harris, evangelical Christians would account for two-thirds of the ten-point margin Reagan racked up against Jimmy Carter. Christian conservatives also played a major role in Republicans recapturing the Senate for the first time in twenty-six years.
A Nation in His Image
Criswell died sixteen years ago, but his politics and prejudices have been born again in the guise of Jeffress. Fortunately, First Baptist’s toxic politics — and its worship of an unholy trinity of white supremacism, class privilege, and male-dominated heterosexism — have never gone completely unchallenged, even within the Southern Baptist fold.
Criswell’s contemporary T. B. Maston, a sharecropper’s son turned theologian and author, spent his years in Texas opposing segregation, supporting sex education in schools, and defending a woman’s right to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or if pregnancy threatened the health of the mother. Maston became active in the NAACP in the mid-1940s, earning him frequent hate mail from fellow Southern Baptists who called him a “communist” and a “nigger lover.”
Today, Dwight McKissic, the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, opposes Jeffress and his ultra-conservative politics. In 2016, he moved the SBC to condemn displays of the Confederate battle flag. Last year, after the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted Trump to equate neo-Nazis with the anti-fascist protesters who opposed them, McKissic tried to convince the SBC to pass a resolution condemning the alt-right and its “xenophobic biases and racial bigotries.” Some white SBC members called McKissic’s resolution “inflammatory,” but, after a series of complicated parliamentary maneuvers, the Arlington minister prevailed.
Just as Criswell overshadowed Maston during the civil rights era, it looks like Jeffress has accumulated far more power and influence on the national stage than fellow Southern Baptists like McKissic. Like Criswell, Jeffress is determined to mold the Southern Baptist Convention — and the country — in his image.
“How do we push back against evil in the world?” Jeffress asked in a sermon at First Baptist. “One way we do it in our country, a major way we do it, is through the government officials that we elect.” Sadly, whether it was Truett supporting the antisemitic and anti-Catholic Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, Criswell’s support for Reagan’s reactionary presidency in the 1980s, or Jeffress’s never-ending campaign for Donald Trump today, pastors at First Baptist Church in Dallas too often get what they pray for.