Covering Robert Jeffress and Kim Jong Un: Some media shone, while others flailed

It certainly made for a lot of waves on the internet: The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, describing how America's chief executive has authority from God to kill off North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

I’m still waiting for Pope Francis to come up with a statement to refute that one. But first things first: On Tuesday, Jeffress’ remarks were released to the Christian Broadcasting Network, an odd alliance if there ever was one. CBN is very oriented toward the Pentecostal-charismatic side of things and Jeffress most definitely is not, as an old-guard leader on the Southern Baptist right.

But politics always makes for strange bedfellows and with its superior contacts within the Trump administration, CBN has found itself in the unusual role of breaking national stories lately. David Brody’s three-paragraph story was part news, part editorial:

Sometimes you've got to stop evil. It's biblical. In North Korea, it's pretty clear that their dictator is downright evil. So tonight, Pastor Robert Jeffress, a longtime evangelical backer of Donald Trump, just released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to take out Kim Jong Un. This comes after Trump said today that if North Korea continues to threaten the U.S. then they will “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary -- including war -- to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president -- contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors -- will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a President who is serious about protecting our country.”
Folks, get ready. I've warned for a long time that North Korea was the biggest problem all along. Memo to North Korea: with Trump as president, you really don't want to mess with America. This could get real ugly real soon. Trump won't tolerate this for too much longer.

Later, CBN did follow up with something more nuanced from other evangelicals. 

... [The] Southern Baptist mega-church pastor is largely standing alone in his bold statement as other faith leaders and conservative analysts take a much more tempered approach to escalating tensions with the rogue state.
Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, also spoke out this week about the nuances of Romans 13 in light of Jeffress's comments. Tooley said the decision over whether to wage war is not typically a theological question but a pragmatic one made by people in civil authority.
"It's safe to say, contra Jeffress, that no serious segment of Christian tradition has understood Romans 13 to specifically sanction blanket authority for any particular ruler of any nation to 'use whatever means necessary ... to stop evil' anywhere in the world," he said.
Tooley and other faith leaders point believers to the just war tradition which is rooted in classical Christian thought.

So how did journalists in the mainstream media do?

Well, we had quite the spectacle of professionals at news organizations trying to dissect Romans 13. Some did so better than others.

WFAA, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, got a sit-down with the pastor.

I believe the Bible gives President Trump the moral authority to use whatever force necessary including assassination or even war to deal with the evil of this North Korean dictator,” said Jeffress.

Tuesday, the president said any more threats from North Korea will be met with “fire and fury.”

Wednesday, Jeffress pointed to Romans 13 in the New Testament, which he said gives Trump the authority to deliver it.
“My statement in no way is encouraging war. I'm simply saying the president has the moral authority to do whatever is necessary to protect America,” said Jeffress when asked if his comment is fueling the rhetoric.

Vox.com’s new religion writer, Tara Isabella Burton, went beyond Romans 13:

Jeffress isn’t just saying that Trump has the right to go to war with North Korea. He’s directly (if selectively) using the Bible to publicly advocate for Trump’s right to rule by divine fiat -- to do, essentially, whatever he wants to do. This isn’t a personal expression of faith but a directly political one, designed to shape public discourse.
 Romans 13 has certainly been used to bolster evangelical support for war in the past. For example, Richard Land, then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, used the verses to defend George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq during an NPR interview in 2003, even as he recognized the SBC’s position was more hawkish than that of other evangelicals. But Jeffress’s close proximity to the president, and his history of making pro-authoritarian statements more generally, makes this particular application all the more loaded.

On the not-so-bright side of reporting, the New York Daily News team demonstrated how to drop the ball, big time. After stating what Jeffress had said, reporter Christopher Brennan switched to editorializing by adding:

It was not immediately clear how Jeffress squares the devastation of war on the Korean Peninsula with Christian anti-war teaching or the commandment "though shalt not kill."

Earth to the Daily News: Please hire some copy editors. It’s “Thou shalt not kill.” (A hat tip to reader Matthew Casserly who helped us spot that one.)

That paragraph is problematic for other reasons. The reporter could have cited the just war theory that Tooley referred to and which Trump might use should he ever wage war. Plus, plenty of U.S. presidents have brushed aside the Sixth Commandment in the name of national defense. Trump would hardly be the first.

If you need some comic relief about it all, catch Stephen Colbert’s interview with God on whether America should nuke North Korea.

Admit it folks: Isn’t it fun when theology is national news?

 

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