First Baptist Church of Dallas

Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

It’s easy to feel depressed about the state of American journalism these days.

For starters, there is the digital advertising crisis, with Google, Facebook and others sucking up billions of dollars that used to go to local newspapers and broadcast newsrooms to provide coverage of local, regional and state news. To fight back, some of America’s top newspapers have mastered the art of hooking waves of digital subscribers by telling them what they want to hear about national news.

Meanwhile, many news consumers are completely confused about what is “news” and what is “commentary” or analysis writing. People talk about getting their news from television channels (think MSNBC and Fox News) that offer some traditional news reporting, surrounded by oceans of commentary. The Internet? It is a glorious and fallen mix of the good and bad, with many readers choosing to read only what reinforces their core beliefs.

What is news? What is opinion?

Well, the Washington Post recently ran a pair of articles that — in a good way, let me stress — illustrated why some of this confusion exists. Both focused on white evangelicals and their celebrated or cursed support of President Donald Trump. In this case, the news article and the opinion essay are both worth reading, but it was the opinion essay that truly broke new ground. Hold that thought.

First, the news. I am happy to report that the Post, in this case, let the religion desk handle a story about religion and politics. The headline: “He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term.”

There’s only one point I would like to make about this article. Read the following summary material carefully:

Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2016, winning a higher percentage than George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. That enthusiasm has scarcely dimmed. Almost 70 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s performance in office, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot. …

Evangelical Christians are separated from other Protestants (called mainline Protestants) by their belief in the literal truth of the Bible as well as their conservative politics on gender roles, sexuality, abortion and other subjects.

Wait, do most evangelicals — of all colors — have what are essentially POLITICAL views on abortion, sexual morality, gender, etc.? Wouldn’t be more accurate the say that they have theological views that, like many others, they struggle to defend when they enter voting books?

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Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Is it controversial to pray for the president of the United States?

Not really. Anyone who knows anything about religious life in America knows that, week after week, people in a wide variety of religious congregations pray for the president (and the nation’s leaders in general) in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes these prayers are short, inserted in a longer litany of concerns (as in the Orthodox Christian parish I attend) and sometimes they are longer and more specific.

Here is a special-use prayer drawn from the world of liturgical mainline Protestantism (The Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church):

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Next question: Is it controversial to pray for President Donald Trump?

Apparently so. It appears that this answer is linked to another question that, for millions of Americans (including many journalists) remains controversial: Should Trump be recognized, in just about any way, as the president of the United States?

The world of Twitter journalism just had a fascinating firestorm about these questions — racing from a news report at The Hill all the way to a calm essay by Emma Green at The Atlantic, with a variety of comments by chattering-class voices in between. Let’s start with the politically charged basics, at The Hill: “Pastor defends prayer for Trump, says aim was not to endorse policies.” This event took place at one of the most high-profile evangelical megachurches near the D.C. Beltway.

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Hot Trump-era issue: Should national flags or patriotic songs be allowed in church?

Hot Trump-era issue: Should national flags or patriotic songs be allowed in church?


Should national flags be displayed, or patriotic songs be sung, during Christian worship?


This issue comes to mind amid the seasonal fuss over professional football players’ political protests during the pregame National Anthem. Not to mention veterans organizations’ indignation when non-veteran Donald Trump temporarily refused to lower the White House flag to half-staff in honor of the late prisoner of war John McCain.

Considering the emotions in such secular situations, it’s unsurprising that the perennial religious questions above continually provoke lively comment on the Internet and elsewhere. Some weeks ago, a friend in The Religion Guy’s own congregation (Christian Reformed) asked why we don’t display the American flag up front like other churches do. I didn’t know but that brought to mind other situations.

The Guy’s daughter was flummoxed by a Southern Baptist service in North Carolina on a July 4th weekend. It began with a military color guard marching forth with the American flag, whence the worshipers recited the Pledge of Allegiance. She asked the old man, isn’t Christian worship about a different allegiance?

The Guy is familiar with an evangelical summer camp that parades the U.S. flag along with other nations’ flags at worship to symbolize foreign missions. The ceremony gives Old Glory prominence above the other flags, which disregards protocol in federal law and military regulations requiring equal respect.

The Guy has visited innumerable churches that give the U.S. flag the place of ceremonial honor to the pastor’s right with the Christian flag (a 1907 American invention) relegated to the left.

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Hey First Baptist Dallas: Your pastor's a real dolt, but your church isn't all that terrible, paper says

Hey First Baptist Dallas: Your pastor's a real dolt, but your church isn't all that terrible, paper says

The Dallas Morning News is no fan of Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.

Or to be more precise, the newspaper's Metro columnists are no fans of Jeffress, the Southern Baptist megachurch leader best known as one of President Donald Trump's key evangelical defenders.

But given that the paper tends to cover Jeffress in the form of opinionated columns, it's frequently difficult to make much distinction between the paper itself and its columnists.

For those interested in impartial news coverage, that's a problem. We at GetReligion, of course, advocate for clearly marking news and opinion content so that readers know which is which. The Dallas Morning News does a reasonable job of that, running columnists' photos with their pieces as opposed to using normal bylines.

However, what if all the coverage a paper ever provides about a key public figure comes in the form of opinion — the kind of opinion (read: metro column) run on news pages beside regular news stories? In that case, couldn't a reader reasonably ask if the paper really offers impartial coverage of that person? I'll explain more in a moment.

First, some key background: In 2016, we noted it here at GetReligion when Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonksy declared that "Robert Jeffress belongs in Dallas' past, not our future." At the same time, Wilonsky was doing regular news reporting on Jeffress, which seemed to be a conflict. Later that same year, we pointed it out when the Dallas paper couldn't even get the books of the Bible right when quoting Jeffress.

Now, First Baptist Dallas is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Given what a major player Jeffress and that church have become on the national stage, one might expect coverage by the Dallas paper. And indeed, the paper had a big piece on its Metro section cover. But it wasn't a news story. It was a column by Sharon Grigsby.

In fact, it was the most positive story I've read about First Baptist in the Dallas Morning News (feel free to send me links if I've missed something).

The headline sings the church's praises:

The light still shines from First Baptist Dallas

But the subhead makes it clear the writer doesn't like Jeffress' brand of politics:

Church's value speaks louder than pastor's political clamor

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Friday Five: Billy Graham, Billy Graham, Billy Graham, Billy Graham and more Billy Graham

Friday Five: Billy Graham, Billy Graham, Billy Graham, Billy Graham and more Billy Graham

Most weeks, "Friday Five" jumps all over the place in the world of religion.

This week, the biggest story (the only story?) is Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

By my count, this is GetReligion's sixth post on the subject. Spoiler alert: It won't be the last.

Let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: I won't even attempt to name a best story out of all the countless pieces that have been written on Graham's death and legacy. Honestly, I've had a chance to read only a fraction of what's been written so far.

But — as an Oklahoma resident for much of the past three decades and someone who covered the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing — I was touched by our own Terry Mattingly's tribute to Graham.

Tmatt's special column focuses on Graham's role and importance after the April 19, 1995, bombing, which resulted in the deaths of 168 people — including 19 children. In his sermon, Graham was acting as "America's pastor" and as an evangelist, at the same time, with President Bill Clinton in the front row.

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Make America grating again? That Donald Trump rally and those old American worship wars

Make America grating again? That Donald Trump rally and those old American worship wars

Hang in there with me for a minute or two, because I want to connect a few dots before we jump into troubled waters defined by the all-powerful words "Donald Trump."

A long time ago, an Episcopal bishop from the American South said something about his own flock that I thought was funny, but also insightful. When talking about issues linked to evangelism and winning converts, he said: "Episcopalians will do anything for God, as long as it's not too TACKY."

When he said the word "tacky," he added as much neo-British, aristocratic flair as possible. In other words, he was saying that some believers get very upset about religious activities that they see as beneath their perceived social status.

That brings me to this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) and to the opening of this week's On Religion column that served as the hook for my latest chat with host Todd Wilken.

Let me ask a question that I did not have room for in the actual column that went out on the wires. Consider the lyrics of the songs featured in the following two events, one in England and the other in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Which song does more to mix the worlds of church and state, the sacred and the political?

First, there is this familiar hymn, No. 578 in the Hymns Ancient and Modern volumes found in Church of England pews.

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Offering nuts and bolts of what preacher Jeffress said about building biblical walls

Offering nuts and bolts of what preacher Jeffress said about building biblical walls

Sometimes the best way to cover an address -- or a sermon -- by a very controversial figure is to set out to accomplish one basic, but essential task.

Just. Quote. What. Was. Said. 

In this case, if there are people who will be angered by this controversial Southern Baptist preacher's words, then quoting the text accurately and at length will probably make them angry. Can I hear an "Amen"?

At the same time, quoting his words at length -- in context, with minimal editorial framing -- will probably please the preacher's supporters. Of course, there are plenty of preachers who won't be happy with what journalists write, no matter what. That's just the way things go, sometimes.

This brings us to Sarah "Yes, she used to be a GetReligionista" Pulliam Bailey's quick take in The Washington Post on the pre-inauguration sermon by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, the lightning-rod (for pretty much everyone, including many young evangelicals) leader of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.

This sermon was delivered in the small sanctuary of St. John's Episcopal Church, across from the White House. It was not a major media event and, thus, it is significant that the digital version of the Post report ends with the verbatim text of the sermon. Bravo. 

After offering a lede that stated the obvious (but didn't drown readers in venom, like CNN) -- Jeffress has a "history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays" -- Bailey launched into a combination of direct quotes and paraphrases that let Jeffress speak for himself. The political angles were highlighted, but not pounded into the reader's head with a mallet. Thus, readers learned that Jeffress:

... compared Trump to the story of the biblical leader Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel.

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Hey Dallas Morning News: Bible contains two books of Timothy, and Peter didn't write them

Hey Dallas Morning News: Bible contains two books of Timothy, and Peter didn't write them

Imagine if a sportswriter covering the Dallas Cowboys (who are on quite a roll!) didn't know the difference between a touchdown and a two-point conversion.

Or if a journalist reporting on the Texas Rangers (my beloved Texas Rangers) failed to understand how a batter could swing and miss at strike three — and still reach first base safely.

Now contemplate this for a moment: What if —  a la Donald "Two Corinthians" Trump — a major newspaper's reporters and editors failed to realize that the apostle Paul wrote two letters, not one, to his "son in the faith" Timothy? Or even that Paul, not Peter, was the one who penned them?

Welcome to the Dallas Morning News of 2016 — a once-great newspaper with a once-unrivaled team of Godbeat pros.

These days, this — referring to Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas — is what passes for religion reporting in the Texas newspaper:

In another video he posted Wednesday morning, Jeffress pointed to the Book of Timothy, where Peter instructed Christians to pray for all leaders. He tweeted that he would have the same message if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency.

For everyone reading this in the Dallas Morning News newsroom (and that's no longer a large group of people, which is part of the problem), those New Testament epistles are known as 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy. (Or for president-elects who might ever need to mention them out loud, think First Timothy and Second Timothy.

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Biased framing: Here's why 'religious freedom' automatically means 'anti-LGBT' to this newspaper

Biased framing: Here's why 'religious freedom' automatically means 'anti-LGBT' to this newspaper

Dallas Morning News writer Robert Wilonksy is no fan of Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas.

No fan at all.

In fact, Wilonsky wrote a scathing column last week in which he declared that "Robert Jeffress belongs in Dallas' past, not our future":

It’s appalling but never particularly surprising when First Baptist Dallas senior pastor Robert Jeffress says something about how the Catholics and the gays and the Muslims and the Mormons are ruining America and stripping Christians of their religious liberties. It’s who he is. It’s what he does. It’s how he makes his mammon.
Dallas has become a city that considers itself progressive and tolerant, where “gender identity and expression” are part of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. We’re supposed to be enlightened now, no longer The City of Hate.
But Jeffress is the vestigial tail that forgot to fall off.
And usually, when Jeffress says things like President Barack Obama’s clearing the path for the Antichrist or that he agrees with Donald Trump that women who get abortions should be punishedor that “a competent Christian is better than a competent non-Christian,” his remarks rev up the Internet Comment Machine for a day or two and then fade away until the next time he says something you can’t believe someone would say in a major metropolitan city in 2016.
But not this time.
This time, activists are demanding city officials do something, say something.

Extremely strong words. And certainly appropriate ones for an editorial writer. We at GetReligion highlight slanted reporting and apparent bias in news coverage, not opinion content.

But what if the same writer who bashed Jeffress above also purported to produce impartial news coverage on the same subject matter?

Might anyone at the Dallas Morning News see a problem with that? A journalistic problem?

Mind-blowingly, the answer appears to be no.

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