By Joseph L. Conn
The Rev. Robert Jeffress just won’t shut up, and for that, I thank him.
You know Jeffress, the Texas preacher who infamously endorsed “ born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ” Rick Perry while denouncing Mitt Romney as a member of the Mormon “cult.” Since his debut on the national stage at the Values Voter Summit, Jeffress has added Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism to his list of “false” religions, and I’m sure it won’t be long before Zoroastrianism makes the grade as well.
The pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas has been all over the media in recent days, spreading his venomous take on religion and politics. Today he appears on the op-ed page of The Washington Post with a screed on “Why a candidate’s faith matters.”
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“[O]ur religious beliefs,” he says, “define the very essence of who we are” and so evangelicals should vote in the GOP primary for a man who is “both a competent leader and a committed Christian.” If Romney gets the Republican nod, he may have to vote for him, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
Jeffress marshals all kinds of bogus arguments to support his naked religious bigotry.
For example, he says that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids religious tests for public office, applies only to the government, not individual voters.
Jeffress is, I suppose, technically right about this. When you step into the voting booth, you can vote on the basis of all kinds of spurious considerations, including personal prejudices. You will have only your conscience to answer to, and as we know, some people don’t have very delicate consciences.
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But Jeffress’ approach to voting is certainly in violation of the spirit of our Constitution and the vision of our nation’s Founders. Thomas Jefferson, a leading advocate of American religious liberty, said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God.” Other Founders were equally broadminded, creating a nation where all citizens are equal regardless of their views about religion.
It goes without saying that Pastor Jeffress wouldn’t have voted for Jefferson for president. Or George Washington or James Madison or Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They weren’t “born again,” as far as we know, any more than most of our presidents have been, up until recently.
In a feeble attempt to recruit at least one Founder to his side, Jeffress rolls out John Jay, an author of the Federalist Papers and the nation’s first chief justice. Jay, Jeffress recalls, said, “It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
Unlike some fabricated quotes from the Founders that the Religious Right often wave about, this Jay observation is accurate. But I hardly think Mr. Jay is proper role model for 21st-century America.
Jay, like Jeffress, had a rather narrow definition of what religious liberty means or, for that matter, what the term Christian encompasses. Catholics, for example, weren’t included. In 1777 in the New York constitutional convention, he fought hard to exclude Catholics from the state’s religious liberty protection. His proposed amendment would have forbidden Catholics to own land or exercise civil rights unless they took an oath repudiating the “dangerous and damnable doctrine that the pope…has power to absolve men from sins.” (The proposal failed on a 19-10 vote.)
Jeffress has attacked the Catholic Church as a “cult-like pagan religion,” so I can see why he thinks John Jay was a swell fellow. But Jay was wrong about religious liberty. We weren’t a Christian nation then, and we aren’t one now. Rather, we are a nation where some 2,000 different religious groups and traditions thrive and where millions of Americans follow no spiritual path at all.
Now, I’m not going to be drawn into the question of which religions are true and which religions are false. All of us have opinions about that and, like Jeffress, we’re free to express them.
Where Jeffress goes so wrong, however, is melding his personal religious beliefs so tightly with his political actions. He’s a born-again Christian and believes evangelical Christianity is the one true faith, so he’s going to do his damnedest to get someone with his faith perspective into the White House.
Jeffress wants this, not because of simple affection for fellow believers, but because he thinks his man will impose that one true faith on all Americans through government action. In keeping with his beliefs, he hopes his candidate will ban all abortions, deny civil rights to LGBT Americans, wedge religion into the public schools, fund religious academies, appoint Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia and generally take a bulldozer to the wall of separation between church and state.
If Jeffress’ dream comes true, all of us who fail to meet his religious test will be second-class citizens in our own land.
Here’s the bottom line: A candidate’s beliefs about religion should only matter if he or she plans to push them through government action. If a candidate is committed to church-state separation, you don’t have to worry much about whether he nods toward Rome, Mecca or Salt Lake City when he prays. Or even Dallas.
And that’s why I thank Jeffress. These days, many leaders in the powerful Religious Right movement think exactly as he does, but they don’t have the temerity to say it out loud. Jeffress reminds us that there is a mean streak in the Religious Right that is deep and wide.
Americans who thought that Religious Right bigotry and sectarian zealotry died with Jerry Falwell now know better.
So keep preaching, Brother Jeffress. Every time you open your mouth, another alarmed citizen joins Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
I won’t say amen to your politicization of religion, but you’re educating a lot of people about the challenges we face as a nation. With men like you on the loose, we need church-state separation now more than ever.