For years, cable news networks have turned to Evangelical Texas pastor Robert Jeffress to provide a social conservative's perspective on issues ranging from marriage equality to the to the "War on Christmas." But while the pastor's congeniality has earned him favor with media outlets, his history of extreme anti-gay and Islamophobic rhetoric should raise questions about his legitimacy as a mainstream media commentator.
Who Is Pastor Robert Jeffress?
Long before he was making appearances on America's most watched cable news shows, Robert Jeffress was acting as the young pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls. Despite his Evangelical background, Jeffress' early ministry work wasn't defined by fire-and-brimstone-type condemnations of homosexuality. In 1998, however, Jeffress made his first public foray into the culture war. According to D Magazine's Michael J. Mooney:
He had just finished preparing a portion of a sermon titled "We Cannot Condone What God Has Condemned" when a member of his church came to him one morning with two books from the Wichita Falls public library. The books, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, are both about children raised by gay couples, and the latter features an illustration of two men in a bed together.
He thought about those books. And when he was preaching his message that Sunday, something welled up inside of him. The words just came out. "I'm gonna take my stand right here!" he said. "I'm not gonna return these books!"
Jeffress went on to spearhead an effort to remove the books from the Wichita Falls public library - an effort that earned him national attention as the City Council and ACLU became involved in the dispute. A judge eventually ruled that it was unconstitutional to exclude the books from the library, but the incident helped propel Jeffress' popularity among Evangelicals, and his congregation expanded as a result.
In 2007, Jeffress became the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, where his national profile continued to grow. In March of 2013, the church opened a new $130 million church campus - completing the "largest Protestant church building campaign in modern history."
Jeffress' Media Appeal
Since rising to national prominence as the head of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Jeffress has become a fixture in national media discussions about religion and Christianity. His signature soft-spoken and polite demeanor has helped him develop a reputation as a conservative but reasonable commentator on issues related to faith and morality. D Magazine's Mooney described Jeffress' appeal:
It would be easy to dislike him if he were a hypocrite or a bigot, if he were an insufferable megalomaniac or the kind of man who preaches out of hate and anger. But he's none of those things. He's actually delightful to be around. He's not just polite; he earnestly cares about people. He may not believe in evolution, but he really does want to know how your day has been. He may oppose certain rights for gay people, but he genuinely desires for you to be merry on Christmas. If he talks with you, he's attentive and giving. He's curious about you and about the world.
His saccharine disposition is often the subject of jokes. After playing a clip of Jeffress saying Mormonism has always been considered a cult, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart called it "the sweetest, most good-natured, pleasant sh
ing on an entire religion I've ever seen." He added, aping Jeffress' syrupy Southern twang: "Bless his heart."
That friendly attitude has likely contributed to Jeffress' prominence on cable news outlets over the past several years. During the 2012 GOP primary, Jeffress - a vocal supporter of Texas Governor Rick Perry - routinely made the rounds on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News touting the governor's support for Christian values. Jeffress himself became a news story when he called Mormonism a cult in reference to Perry's primary competitor, Mitt Romney. Several conservative commentators criticized Jeffress for his remarks, but the pastor refused to apologize and largely stayed in the good graces of media outlets until Perry dropped out of the race
When he isn't on the campaign trail, Jeffress is regularly called on by the mainstream media to discuss religious issues, especially the alleged tension between Christianity and LGBT equality. He's a regular on Fox News - particularly The O'Reilly Factor - where he's invited to discuss topics ranging from the so-called War on Christmas to the threat posed by American secularists. He writes op-eds for FoxNews.com dealing with religious liberty and answering questions like, "Where was God in Superstorm Sandy?"
But Jeffress has also appeared on MSNBC to condemn the building of mosques in America. And in December, CNN hosted the pastor for a debate over public prayer during Town Board meetings in Greece, New York.
Jeffress' affability has helped endear him to mainstream media outlets, but his views on homosexuality, other religions, and the Obama administration make him one of the most extreme right-wing media figures on television.
History Of Extreme, Inflammatory Rhetoric
Since spearheading the campaign to get gay-friendly books removed from the Wichita Falls public library, Jeffress hasn't evolved much in his views on homosexuality or the LGBT community. Though he claims he's now willing to consider the possibility that homosexuality is a "genetic predisposition," Jeffress has peddled a number of extreme anti-gay smears, including:
- Gay people lead a "miserable lifestyle"
- Homosexuality is linked to pedophilia
- Gay people are promiscuous and engaged in "brainwashing activit[ies]"
- Gay rights will cause the "inevitable implosion of our country"
Jeffress' bigotry isn't just directed at LGBT people; he's also made a number of disparaging comments about other religions, including the claim that Islam is a violent religion that "promotes pedophilia" and that Muslims, Mormons, and Jews are doomed to go to hell.
Jeffress' extremism hasn't got unnoticed. In February of 2013, former NFL player Tim Tebow announced that he was withdrawing from an event held at Jeffress' church after being informed about the pastor's history of bigoted comments:
Jeffress denied the charges of extremism, supported by a number of prominent right-wing media figures. Fox News reporter Todd Starnes published several columns accusing the "anti-Christian media" of having "smeared" the pastor, and notorious hate group American Family Association spokesman Bryan Fischer cited the incident to argue that Jeffress had become "the Most Important Man in America."
But Tebow's public rebuking of Jeffress' extremism hasn't been enough to temper the pastor's public rhetoric. In a press release for his new book Perfect Ending, Jeffress asserted that President Obama's policies are "paving the way for the Antichrist."
Nor has it deterred cable news outlets from treating Jeffress like a credible media commentator. In December, for example, CNN invited the pastor to discuss the controversy surrounding anti-gay remarks made by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jeffress used the opportunity to defend his view that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles than straight men.
Jeffress' popularity on cable news networks raises questions about what mainstream media outlets are willing to tolerate in terms of animosity towards marginalized groups as long as it's done under the guise of sincere religious belief. Fox News has already demonstrated that everything is fair game when it comes to religiously-motivated anti-gay bigotry. Jeffress, whose comments about gay people and the Obama administration go well beyond mainstream Christian teaching, deserves to be held responsible for the animus he charmingly peddles to a national audience on a regular basis.