The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

Social media went nuts this week — overwhelmingly positive nuts — over the official trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers that will hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving.

As Esquire notes, “The film is based on a profile of Mr. Rogers that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 1998. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized version of the writer, embarking upon the profile of the kids television icon with initial reluctance before forging a friendship with his subject, the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.”

Hmmmm, a movie about the relationship that develops between a journalist and his subject.

Perhaps this formula could work for a future movie about Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a leading evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump.

Except that — when Hollywood tells Jeffress’ story — he’s not likely to be portrayed as “the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.” Instead, think Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

The basis for the Jeffress screenplay? The big screen could do worse than Texas Monthly’s long August cover story on “Trump’s Apostle.”

Writer Michael J. Mooney sets the scene this way:

Here’s Robert Jeffress, talking to the hundreds of thousands of people watching conservative cable news on a typical Friday evening, and he’s defending President Donald Trump against the latest array of accusations in the news this week. And he isn’t simply defending Trump—he’s defending him with one carefully crafted Bible-wrapped barb after another, and with more passion, more preparation, more devotion than anyone else on television.

As Lou Dobbs finishes his opening remarks, Jeffress laughs and nods. It’s early January, about two weeks into what will prove to be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are missing paychecks, worrying about mortgages, car payments, utility bills. Some have started going to food banks. But Dobbs waves his hand up and down and tells Jeffress that he hasn’t heard anyone—“literally no one!”—say they miss the government. The jowly host revels in Trump’s threats that the shutdown could continue “for months, if not years,” if that’s what it takes to get more wall built on America’s border with Mexico.

Jeffress, speaking from a remote studio in downtown Dallas, agrees completely. “Well, he’s doing exactly the right thing in keeping this government shut down until he gets that wall,” he says.

Jeffress is the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, a 13,000-member megachurch that’s one of the most influential in the country, but he’s known best for appearances like this one: he’s often on Fox & Friends or Hannity or any number of sound-bitey segments on Fox News or Fox Business. His own religious show airs six days a week on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has a daily radio program too, broadcast on more than nine hundred Christian stations across the country, though it’s TV he loves best. Dobbs invites Jeffress onto his show nearly every week.

A quick aside: Is First Baptist Dallas really “one of the most influential” megachurches in the U.S.? I mean, I know Jeffress is high-profile in the Trump era. But is the church itself really that influential?

A religion journalist whose viewpoint I respect told me he read the Texas Monthly story and “found it surprisingly dull.”

Me? I think the piece is fascinating. I guess even friends aren’t going to agree on everything.

Part of my interest: I have interviewed Jeffress a few times — both in person and on the phone — and always found him friendly, helpful and eager to answer my questions. On the day the Rev. Billy Graham, who was a longtime member of First Baptist Dallas, died, Jeffress answered his cell phone in Jerusalem — where he was part of an evangelical delegation — to talk to me about Graham.

But to a lot of journalists — particularly to those whom Trump is anathema — Jeffress is a villain. News coverage of him often reflects that. His hometown Dallas Morning News has an especially difficult time covering Jeffress in an impartial manner.

Which is part of why Mooney’s Texas Monthly piece is so compelling to me. The story gets really interesting, it seems to me, when the writer — who makes no attempt to hide his own liberal leanings — starts detailing his personal interactions with Jeffress.

Such as (and I apologize for this big chunk of text, but it’s highly relevant):

Here’s Robert Jeffress in his office, a year or so into Trump’s first term, speaking to a reporter: me. We have a bit of history. In late 2011, around the time Jeffress was first upsetting conservatives by criticizing Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, I wrote a profile of Jeffress for D Magazine. In the story, I explained that despite the fact that I disagreed with him on virtually every issue—at the time, he was supporting a presidential run by Texas governor Rick Perry—I found Jeffress charming and personable. Yes, he insists that the vast majority of humanity will spend eternity in a pit of fire. But he’s also self-deprecating and disarming. I was curious about his political advocacy and how he squares it with the teachings of Jesus.

After the story ran, we continued to have lunch every couple of months, usually in his office. It’s on the sixth floor of one of the church’s eight buildings, with towering shelves of scholarly journals, framed covers of his books (he has written more than twenty), and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the Nasher Sculpture Center. We ask each other about family and work. We discuss news and politics and whatever’s happening in the world that week.

He’s completely engaged, attentive. With or without the TV makeup, he’s the same man. Same rapid-fire delivery. Same polite, saccharine manner. Same unapologetic born-again Baptist view of the world. He says he genuinely wants me to dedicate myself to Jesus Christ, and he prays for me and my wife. His goal is to save as many souls as possible before the end times. He knows journalism is important to me, and he reminds me that some of the greatest writers in history were Christians. I joke that I know he’d love to brag that he helped shape some sort of present-day C. S. Lewis.

Yep, once Jeffress succeeds in saving the writer’s soul, Hollywood will have a real tale to tell.

Some of the better give-and-take between the pastor and the journalist involves the question of whether only Republicans attend First Baptist Dallas (Jeffress claims that’s not the case, while Mooney insists he’s never met a Democrat at the church). Jeffress, meanwhile, challenges Mooney to find a “pro-life Democrat leader. You can’t find one.”

Another fascinating exchange:

Jeffress explains that early on in his relationship with Trump, he asked, “Mr. Trump, what do I say when people ask me about your faith?” He says Trump responded, “Tell people that my faith is very important to me but that it’s also very personal.”

Then someone asks if he agrees with the president about the news media. Jeffress looks right at me and smiles. He tells the audience that his mother was a high school journalism teacher. Her former students went on to work for some of the best newspapers in the country. “I honestly believe that most of the media tries their hardest to get it right,” he says, adding that the freedom of religion and freedom of the press are inextricably linked by the First Amendment.

I could copy and paste many more anecdotes from the story, including how Jeffress and Trump bonded over Wendy’s cheeseburgers in Trump’s plane between Iowa campaign stops in 2016. But I’ve probably said enough.

Your turn: Read the story and let me know what you think.

Dull like my friend saw it? Or fascinating as I’ve described it? Hollywood material or not?

Home page photo of Robert Jeffress courtesy of First Baptist Church of Dallas

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