Jeffress & Graham: Talk of Violence Breeds Violence

Jeffress & Graham: Talk of Violence Breeds Violence October 4, 2019

The Book of Proverbs is replete with warnings about the dangerous power of speech: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (18:21 NRSV)

While a quick glance at the president’s twitter account shows that such warnings don’t sway him, I would hope they would shape the words of pastors in his orbit. Sadly, such is not always the case.

Speaking on FOX News last weekend, Rev. Robert Jeffress recklessly and hyperbolically predicted “a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal” if President Trump were removed from office via impeachment. The president swiftly tweeted this claim to his 65 million followers. Trump didn’t have to threaten violence in his own voice — the pastor did it for him. Franklin Graham, a staunch support of the president, responded more subtly, tweetingDr. @RobertJeffress warned on @FoxNews that impeachment could ‘cause a civil war-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.’ I don’t know about that, but I can tell you this could lead to conflict that nobody wants if they continue down this road.”

This rhetoric isn’t just divisive, it’s dangerous in a world where social media spreads our messages further and faster than ever before. 

In partnership with Over Zero, Faith in Public Life has trained clergy from all over the country in recognizing and countering speech that increases the risk of violence. Working with interfaith groups on the local level, we explore how the road from stability to ethnically and religiously targeted violence is paved an inch at a time with language, and examine what faith communities can do about it. 

When looking at the rhetoric that has preceded large-scale violence committed on the basis of identity — from Nazi Germany to Rwanda to white supremacist violence in the U.S. — clear patterns emerge that divide an “us” from a “them” and pit the groups in a zero-sum conflict for survival. According to Oxford University political scientist Jonathan Leader Maynard, the targeted “them” group is portrayed as subhuman, collectively guilty of crimes against “us,” and a threat to “our” survival. And in subtler ways, cultural narratives portray violence by the “us” group as virtuous, necessary for survival, and a step toward a brighter future.

Rwandan mosqueBut faith leaders can be guardians of peace. For instance, Rwandan Muslims resisted the genocide. In the months before the atrocities, imams recognized the increasingly dangerous language in their communities, and spent Ramadan of 1994 telling their congregations that part of being a good Muslim was resisting the temptation to take part in violence. Mosques then concealed Tutsis from militias, and Muslim leaders helped Tutsis flee the country under cover of night at the peak of the slaughter.

While President Trump’s white evangelical support has decreased significantly since he took office, he still had 73% approval rating among them in a July NPR/PBS/Marist poll thanks in part to stalwart support from the likes of Jeffress and Graham. The president is desperate to hold onto evangelical support, and is using apocalyptic rhetoric to do so. In addition to echoing Jeffress’s claim about civil war, he is already falsely calling impeachment a coup. And his extensive history of dangerous language against Latinos, Muslims, immigrants and refugees helped inspire massacres at a Walmart in El Paso and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

As dangerous rhetoric escalates, we need religious leaders — in particular white evangelical pastors — to defend the humanity of those whom Trump attacks. Some members of the Evangelical Immigration Table have done this admirably. Conservative evangelicals must also set a norm that being a patriotic member of their community means respecting constitutionally mandated political processes and resisting the temptation to resort to violence when we disagree with the outcome of those processes. 

Jeffress and Graham are threatening democracy and insulting Christianity by not being clear that members of their communities should remain peaceful. Instead, they have helped weaken the social norm against political violence by portraying it as within the realm of possibility while not condemning it. 

My prayer is that all who bear the awesome responsibility that rests in the pulpit remember not only Proverbs’ warnings about reckless speech, but also its words about the benefits of virtuous language: “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18 NRSV).

[To learn more about what faith communities can do to counteract the language that increases the risk of violence, check out Over Zero’s web site and the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s resources on the topic.]

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  • Ocelot Aardvark

    Jeffress, Graham, Dobbs, & Falwell, among others, are the False Prophets, of whom Christ warned us to beware.
    – Matthew 7:15

  • Micho Lambwe

    God have mercy.

  • dferraez

    We are witnessing an attemped illegal coup against a democratically elected president. I, for one, am getting sick of it. Two years of false accusations totally disproved by the Mueller investigation,and now “whistleblower” from 2nd , 3rd sources. I read the full transcript when it first came out and then that night listened to tv talking heads try to tell me what I read and and it was totally not what the transcripts said. Go Jeffress and

    Graham. They are telling the truth.

  • jlady

    An illegal coup?? Impeachment is written into the U.S. Constitution (you know about the U.S. Constitution? – you should read some time) and is perfectly legal. Talk of an illegal coup is irresponsible, ignorant, offensive, and dangerous.

  • Wile F. Coyote

    ‘… false accusations totally disproved by the Mueller investigation …’

    From the Business Insider May 29, 2019:

    “As set forth in the report, after that investigation, if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”

    —John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) May 29, 2019

    The special counsel’s report outlined 11 possible instances of obstruction by Trump but declined to make a conclusion on whether the president committed a crime.

    It looks to me, ferraraz, that what happens inside your brain and Donald Trump’s brain when you read what is written in the Mueller report (and this is true for almost all of the people who pay attention to the CBN/Fox evening lineup/rightwing talk radio, and little if anything else in the way of news/opinion), is totally different from what happens inside the brains of people who are not conservative ideologues.

    ‘Mueller’s comments on Wednesday echoed his report, which said, “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgement.” ‘

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    Not a “coup” MAGAT … it is the Constitutional remedy to rid ourselves of that insane, obscene, vindictive, treasonous, child-raping, dictator-wannabe, and unrepentant, Terrorist-in-Chief –> TЯ


    Yeah, and what about the Republicans going after Bill Clinton over an affair considering the number of affairs Newt Gingrich had and what about all the things that the Republicans tried to do in hampering Obama from putting America back to work?

  • dferraez

    I can see that I disagree with some of you. The reasons are not that I don`t read or listen to other sides. Nor do I think that some of you don`t read or listen to other sides. So therefore the why we have different viewpoints is very important to have a chance to having some kind of agreements. Now, when I refer to me, I`m probably like half of the country and some of you are probably like the other half of our country. Right now I don`t have time to list why I believe what the reasons are for the differences in our beliefs, but it goes to something as basic as many of us believe abortion is genocide and the other side thinks abortions are perfectly ok.

  • Gary

    The Left leads the way in hateful talk. If they don’t want violence, then they should tone down their hate.

  • Ocelot Aardvark

    Yet it’s TЯ卐m₽ MAGATs like you that have been doing all of the mass-murders at schools, churches, malls, concerts, synagogues and running down bystanders with their automobiles.

  • Questioning

    Nothing illegal about it, and nothing was “totally disproved”.

  • Questioning

    Deserting the Kurds is more likely to lead to genocide. Also the country is not divided in half on every issue. Finally if Donald Trump’s base was for abortion he would be right there with them, dishing out vitriol and childish name calling in favor of women’s rights. He is not to be trusted.

  • Questioning

    Hardly…. the leader of the free world is way out in front when it comes to hateful talk.