The Rev. Robert Jeffress is a Southern Baptist who vigorously campaigned for Trump last year
He has a history of disparaging remarks against gays, Muslims, Mormons and others
Friday's worship service was held at St. John's Episcopal Church across the street from the White House
A pastor with a long history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays preached at a private service for President-elect Trump and his family on Friday, shortly before Trump took the oath of office.
The pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, is a Southern Baptist who vigorously campaigned for Trump during the final months of the presidential election and is a member of his evangelical advisory board. “I love this guy!” Trump has said of Jeffress. Before the campaign, Trump, a Presbyterian, had no apparent connection to the pastor, who leads First Baptist Church in Dallas.
Friday morning’s worship service, held at St. John’s Episcopal Church across the street from the White House, continued a modern Inauguration Day ritual. With the exception of Richard Nixon in 1973, every president since Franklin Roosevelt has attended spiritual services on Inauguration Day, many at St. John’s. The event is separate from both the inauguration itself and an interfaith service to be held Saturday at Washington National Cathedral, where an imam is among those who will offer prayers.
Usually the Inauguration Day service draws little notice, much less controversy. But offering Jeffress such a prominent pulpit is likely to irk religious minorities, particularly Muslims, many of whom were already angered by the President-elect’s stoking of suspicions about Islam during the campaign.
Jeffress leads a 12,000-member megachurch in Dallas and is a frequent guest on Fox News. But to many Americans, he may be best known for his frequent condemnations of Mormonism as a “cult” during the 2012 presidential campaign. He urged Christians not to vote for Mitt Romney, a Mormon, during the Republican primary. He later supported Romney over President Barack Obama.
Jeffress has also called Islam and Mormonism heresies “from the pit of hell,” suggested that the Catholic church was led astray by Satan, accused Obama of “paving the way” for the Antichrist and spread false statistics about the prevalence of HIV among gays, who he said live a “miserable” and “filthy” lifestyle.
In recent years, Jeffress has frequently denounced Islam, calling it an “evil religion” that “promotes pedophilia” because the Prophet Muhammed married a 9-year-old girl. (Many modern Muslim scholars disagree about her age.) The pastor has also said that Mormons, Muslims and Hindus “worship a false god.”
The Rev. Luis León, rector of St. John’s Episcopal, told CNN about the plan for Jeffress to deliver the sermon when CNN inquired about the event. Leon has been involved in logistical planning of the event but not the choice of speakers.
About 300 people attended the private event, including Trump’s family and Vice President-elect Mike Pence and his family. Trump’s inauguration organizers chose Jeffress to preach, said León.
On Fox News on Thursday night, Jeffress said his sermon centers on Nehemiah, a Trump-like figure from the Hebrew Bible, who helped rebuild Jerusalem in the 5th century BC, in part by mounting a defensive wall around the city.
“I’m going to use Nehemiah’s story as an example of why God blesses leaders,” Jeffress said, “and I want it to be a tremendous encouragement to our great new president and vice president.”
Unifying or divisive?
An official affiliated with Trump inauguration planning, speaking on background, defended Jeffress against critics who call him divisive:
“Pastor Jeffress is a unifying figure representing a diverse spectrum of Americans. Any attempt to vilify this religious leader is deeply disappointing and misplaced.”
The Council on American-Islamic relations disagreed.
“Unfortunately, the choice of Rev. Jeffress is symptomatic of the incoming Trump administration’s inclusion of notorious Islamophobes in the transition team, in the picks for cabinet nominees and, beginning Friday, in the White House,” said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.
Ross Murray, director of programs for GLAAD, said he is also concerned about the inclusion of Jeffress in Friday’s service.
“The inauguration and the people invited to pray at the inauguration speak to the values and the agenda of the incoming president. Jeffress’ anti-LGBTQ message is now going to be tied to this administration and its policies.”
Ironically, St. John’s is known for its tolerance toward homosexuality and other faiths. In November, León joined other Episcopalians in urging Trump to denounce a rash of hate crimes across the US, many apparently related to the election.
Even though the service was private, Jeffress is an unusual choice to preach on Inauguration Day, an occasion when incoming presidents often try to unite the country’s diverse religious and social strands. In 2013, the Rev. Louie Giglio, an evangelical pastor, withdrew from Obama’s inauguration ceremony after an outcry about a sermon on homosexuality he had preached in the 1990s.
According to Leon, other participants in Friday’s service at St. John’s are a mix of old-guard evangelicals and Trump loyalists. They include: Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, televangelist James Robison and Pastor Mark Burns, who has admitted to falsifying aspects of his biography, such as nonexistent stints in the Army Reserve and a college degree he did not earn.
Later on Friday, at the inauguration itself, five Christians and one rabbi will offer public prayers and readings. While two of the pastors are prosperity preachers – a first for a presidential inauguration – none have disparaged gays or other religions like Jeffress.
Jeffress’ beliefs about other faiths – that they are heresies and will not result in salvation – are shared by many evangelicals. But the stridency of his condemnations sometimes confound fellow conservatives.
“His sound bites are often incendiary, but his convictions — including the exclusivity of the gospel and the belief that homosexual behaviors are sinful — are clearly within the mainstream of American evangelicalism,” R. Albert Mohler, a leading Southern Baptist, said in 2013, after former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow backed out of an event at Jeffress’ church.
But Jeffress’ denunciations of gays and Muslims often stretch beyond the realms of sin and salvation.
He has called homosexuality “degrading,” and linked it to pedophilia, alcoholism, depression and suicide, while insisting that his remarks are rooted in concern for gays – a way of showing them the true path to salvation.
In a 2008 sermon, he urged his congregation to demonstrate compassion toward gays, even as he condemned their “filthy behavior.”
On occasion, Jeffress has taken aim at evangelicals themselves.
“I am getting sick and tired of these namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians who say they’re going to stay home (on Election Day) in November out of moral principle,” Jeffress said last year.
On January 3, Jeffress tweeted that he had met with the incoming president in Trump Tower, and predicted he will be “the most faith-friendly president in our nation’s history.”