*A Conversation on Robert Jeffress, infamous Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas
James Sanchez: Here’s a quote that sticks out from Robert Jeffress recent interview on Fox and Friends: “These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they’re also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking a knee like they would be if they were in North Korea.”
As a theologian, what do you make of Jeffress’ implied connection between God and nationalism, that people should thank God for their freedoms and not dissent?
Jeff Hood: Robert Jeffress is full of shit.
This is the most theologically sound statement I will make in our entire interaction. With such affirmed, God hates nationalism. How could any follower of God be comfortable with living behind the borders of the richest nation on our planet? God calls us to more. God knows that here is absolutely no way to fully love your neighbor and champion the borders of nationalism. Tear them down! God commands us to go unto all the world and spread the message of love…borders should never hold us back. Robert Jeffress’ god might be a god of borders…but the living God is not. The teachings of Robert Jeffress are taking people to the border of knowing God…but unfortunately he doesn’t know how to lead them through the wall of nationalism. We must pray that Jeffress and his followers get saved.
Dissent is divine.
God made us in God’s image. Dissent is what is most divine in us. When we push back, we are emulating the God who is always pushing back. On this day, God is right there with all who love justice…dissenting to the bullshit that Jeffress is teaching. Even at this very hour, my eyes are closed in dissent…praying for the day when I will be able to thank God that Jeffress has actually gotten saved from hate.
How does Fox News play into all of this? It seems like Jeffress always says the craziest shit on their programs. Does the forum create the rhetoric or the rhetoric the forum?
JS: Important question. I would argue it was both. On one hand, Fox News and Fox and Friends have become a caricature of their own conservative viewpoints. They often double down on their talking points, expressing radical perspectives that most reasonable people would resist, yet they do so because this is what their audience expects–not a truth per se, but a completely conservative perspective on “truth.” In this case, the forum itself has created a monster where trite positions entirely fit the mold of neo-conservatism, and to maintain that specific niche, they must have guests who espouse positions that garner headlines, which is exactly what Jeffress accomplished.
On the other hand, any controversial, neo-conservative viewpoint that raises eyebrows would also attract Fox and Friends. A conservative talking head who maintains complexity on issues, who might argue that any problem contains multiple positions, would not be a person that Fox and Friends seeks as a guest. Their platform thrives off of simplicity to the maximum, and anyone who can fit that framework would fill their bill. Thus, this question is sort of a “what came first the chicken or the egg?” type of issue because both the individual’s rhetorical position and the rhetorical platform of the tv show co-create one another.
If Jeffress were to believe that people should stand for the national anthem, but our Christian nation values dissent (thus acknowledging complexity), he would not be asked onto the show
So one might even take this a step further and ask: does Jeffress take a hardline stance on this issue solely to receive publicity, and what does that say about his Christian ethos?
JH: Honestly, I don’t think it’s about publicity. Jeffress actually believes this shit. His God is just as much of a bombastic asshole as he is.
Do you think that Jeffress’ listeners see themselves in his rhetoric? Is this what makes it so effective?
JS: I am fascinated by that because from everything I have read in the Bible and in attending a Baptist church most of my life, the message Jeffress delivers sounds so much different than the one I often heard behind a pulpit. So it makes me question if his Christian listeners truly see themselves in his language, attitude, and obvious politics. If so, are they hiding or masking their own religious beliefs for political ones?
One way to answer that question is to say that it seems the conservative movement has hijacked Christianity overall and has created a false equivalency between Christian values and conservatism. Though Jeffress words are vile and hateful to me, when I truly think about my upbring in deep East Texas, I see how many of my Christian peers might view his rhetoric differently than. They might see his vileness as moral superiority; his patriotism as righteousness. So I think the way the conservative movement seized control over Christian public discourse suggests than many of Jeffress listeners would see themselves in his rhetoric because they would believe in his very conservative agenda.
Do you see a shift in how Christian leaders have interjected into politics over the past few years or decades?
JH: These folks/Christian leaders are not merely interjecting…they are owned. Over the past few years or decades, the price has fallen dramatically. Used to, it was expensive to buy a preacher. In our context, it don’t cost much at all. Robert Jeffress was bought with a few television appearances. Jeffress has made a deal with the devil. Jeffress has crucified his soul on a cross of political influence. He’s addicted and he can’t stop. While I hope he can get saved, I’m fairly convinced that Fox News doesn’t televise resurrections.
Do you see any positive examples of religious rhetoric in politics?
JS: I had never thought about it like that. It’s hard for me to imagine interjecting religion into a political space and me thinking of it in a positive light because I see contemporary politics as antithetical to religious beliefs. Most of the time when someone tries to evoke religion in a political debate I view it as some distorted moral argument that makes me feel very uncomfortable simply because I couldn’t see God caring about our political beliefs in the slightest. So in that sense, yeah, I can’t think of any positive examples. The only ones that might work for me are when everyday people use religious memes to push against contemporary views of Christianity. So, for instance, one I like is a picture of Jesus feeding homeless people that says something to the effect of “I will feed the homeless after they pass their drug tests.”
Of course, this isn’t discourse being utilized by politicians but would still be political rhetoric in that it’s using a religious perspective to critique politics. I do find value in these sorts of memes that try and recapture a more Biblical understanding of Christianity, rather than relying upon how these issues are being defined in the limelight today.
As someone who has a more liberal understanding of Christianity, do you see Jeffress’ conservative, Christian rhetoric as indicative of where America is heading? Do you see it being hard to deliver your message in a climate where Jeffress’ rhetoric is not only acceptable but also applauded?
JH: Quite frankly, I don’t care one way or another. The follower of Jesus does not work for the salvation of America. Those who do…are not followers of Jesus. You see, governments don’t need saving…people do.
Evil will always be applauded. Love will not. In a climate such as ours, we must pursue love as violently as possible. Therein lies our salvation.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor, theologian and activist living and working in Texas. In addition to two bachelor and four graduate degrees, Dr. Hood holds a doctorate with a focus in Queer Theology from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. In addition to his studies, Dr. Hood was ordained to the ministry in 2006, at a church within the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2009, Dr. Hood graduated with an MDiv from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2009. The author of 19 books, Dr. Hood is particularly proud of his recent book The Execution of God from Chalice Press. In 2016, Dr. Hood’s book The Courage to Be Queer was named the third best religion book of the year at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. In addition to writing books, Dr. Hood’s work has appeared extensively in the media, including in the Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Los Angeles Times, WIRED magazine and on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR amongst a whole host of other outlets. Dr. Hood is a husband to Emily and the father of five young children. With deep soul and a belief that God is “calling us to something queerer,” Dr. Hood is a radical mystic and prophetic voice to a closed society.
Dr. James Chase Sanchez is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Middlebury College. He received his doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University in 2017. Dr. Sanchez’s scholarly work focuses on cultural and racial rhetorics, public memory, and writing assessment and appears or is forthcoming in College Composition and Communication, Present Tense, and Writing Program Administration. He recently produced a film titled Man on Fire with director Joel Fendleman. The film examines why a white, retired minister, Charles Moore, decided to self-immolate in Grand Saline, TX in 2014 to protest racism and investigates the racial history of the town.