The Pundit Pastor

How Robert Jeffress became one of the most influential Trump supporters in Christendom.

Robert Jeffress.
Pastor Robert Jeffress. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mandel NganAFP/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

A few minutes before the service officially begins at First Baptist Dallas, the orchestra slowly rises into sight, lifted by a stage elevator that delivers them smoothly into position. The robed choir of some 130 people files into place on risers behind them, and a smaller “worship team” of performers strolls out in front. The lights dim, and the congregation—in this setting, an audience—hushes and waits for the show to begin. One Sunday in December, visitors to the church received a booklet containing a photo of the same choir and orchestra, performing behind President Donald Trump.

First Baptist retains much of the aesthetic conservatism of its stained-glass-in-the-town-square DNA. The unofficial dress code is “Sunday best,” worshippers sit on wooden pews, and no one brings coffee into the sanctuary. But over the years, the congregation has acquired many of the hallmarks of a contemporary megachurch. In its “worship center,” a stadium-style screen spans the proscenium, which throughout the service displays slick promotional videos, close-up shots of the musicians and performers, and the pastor’s Twitter handle: @RobertJeffress.

Until recently, Robert Jeffress was a pastor little known outside his hometown of Dallas. But over the past few years, he’s become one of the most outspoken and influential Trump supporters in Christendom. He prays with the president, stands next to him in photo ops, and defends him on Fox News. On Monday, he is leading a prayer at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. “It’s just one more example of promise made, promise fulfilled,” he told Fox News in one of several appearances over the weekend. His sermons are packaged into a daily radio show and a weekly television show, both titled Pathway to Victory. His official biography says he has made more than 2,000 radio and TV appearances on shows from Fox & Friends to Real Time With Bill Maher. He has been relentless in expanding his reach beyond the walls of the church. Under Jeffress, First Baptist proclaims four missions: callings to worship, equip (which refers to Sunday school classes and other educational efforts), serve, and, notably, “influence.” Cheerleading for Trump “has given [Jeffress] a kind of national stage,” said John Fea, a Trump critic and historian at evangelical Messiah College. “He is a master operator.”

Over the course of two weeks in December and January, I attended three Sunday morning church services at First Baptist. (There are three services every Sunday.) I was drawn by Jeffress’ skyrocketing national profile but also by his unique cultural position as a pastor. Few of the most prominent Christians who support Trump—Fea calls them “court evangelicals”—are pastors of their own churches. Jerry Falwell Jr. is the president of a college founded by his own father. Franklin Graham, who also borrows credibility from his father, runs an international aid organization. (Billy Graham, a longtime member of First Baptist Dallas, was only briefly a pastor of a church; neither were many of the previous generation of religious right leaders, including Trump supporter James Dobson.) Of the pastors on Trump’s evangelical advisory board, few have both the high profile and institutional standing that Jeffress does. Paula White, for example, heads an independent nondenominational congregation with few outside institutional ties.

Jeffress is different. He is the head of 13,000-member church, one of the oldest and most prominent congregations in the country’s largest Protestant denominations. First Baptist Dallas will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year. Jeffress’ job there is to preach the Gospel every week, to guide the spiritual lives of his flock, and represent Christianity to the wider world. The church’s official materials call Jeffress “a bold leader in a decaying culture.” But what exactly does it mean, I wondered, to be a full-time pro-Trump pundit and a full-time pastor at the same time?

Founded in 1868, when Dallas was a wild but growing frontier hub, First Baptist has a long history of flexing its political muscle. One longtime pastor, George Truett, delivered a still-influential speech on religious liberty on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1920. His successor, W.A. Criswell, publicly opposed integration in the 1950s (he changed his mind later) and endorsed Gerald Ford over Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter in 1976. Criswell, with Paige Patterson, was an architect of the eventual takeover of the denomination by theological conservatives starting in the late 1970s. “The Southern Baptist conservative movement,” said Barry Hankins, an historian at Baylor University and co-author of Baptists in America: A History, “in some ways … comes straight out of First Baptist Dallas.”

The modern megachurch is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the suburbs, where expansion is relatively cheap and easy. And for First Baptist, located squarely downtown in the country’s ninth-biggest city, growth has required some creativity. In 2010, the church imploded four of its own buildings in downtown Dallas to make room for a $130 million renovation that grafted a sprawling glass-and-concrete addition onto the steepled Victorian brick building it had occupied for more than a century. (For a sense of the church’s fundraising power: In 2016, it set a two-year goal of raising $50 million.) Its property now spans six city blocks, with an impressive children’s building, sky bridges, and a multistory granite fountain topped with a cross. In some spots, architects had to put up faux brick to make the vision cohere, and visitors ride an escalator up two floors and then walk down to enter the sanctuary.

Awkward juxtapositions do not seem to bother the members of First Baptist Dallas, which is defined by its enthusiastic blend of piety and patriotism. Last July, Trump spoke at a concert in Washington at which the church’s choir sang an original song titled “Make America Great Again.” A few months later, Jeffress interviewed Sean Hannity about the Fox host’s new movie onstage at the church on Sunday morning. Fox personalities Ainsley Earhardt and Todd Starnes also made Sunday morning appearances last year. When I visited in late December, a guest preacher—Paige Patterson, a lion of the Southern Baptist Convention who has recently made headlines of his own—predicted from the pulpit that Roe v. Wade would be overturned within the next few months, thanks in large part to Jeffress’ efforts. There was no evidence Roe v. Wade was on the brink of being overturned, let alone by springtime. But still the congregation burst into applause.

Jeffress attended First Baptist with his parents during the Criswell years; he has said he remembers walking down the aisle of the church at age 5 to tell Criswell he had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. When the family returned home from church on Sunday mornings, little Robert would watch Meet the Press. He has said God told him as a freshman in college that he would someday lead the church; Criswell, in his telling, believed it, too. Jeffress married his high school girlfriend, Amy, and served as the church’s youth pastor in his early 20s. He was named senior pastor in 2007.

The church has long attracted wealthy conservative business leaders and other local elites. When the church celebrated the acceptance of its 20,000th member in 1978, the new member just happened to be the kicker for the Dallas Cowboys. Because of the church’s historical comfort with power, wealth, and publicity, Hankins told me, Jeffress seems to get more leeway than many pastors do to veer into politics.

When I talked to Jeffress by phone after my visit to the church, he quoted Jesus’ command in the book of Matthew that Christians should be “salt and light”—preservative and illumination—in the world. “Many Christians have forgotten that,” he said. “They take the Benedict Option, where you just stand in your holy huddle and hope no one does you harm. … The church is to be on the offensive, not on the defensive.” When a group of Trump-skeptical evangelicals met recently at Wheaton College to discuss the future of their movement, Jeffress dismissed them in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “Many of them are sincere,” he said, “but they are having a hard time understanding that they have little impact on evangelicalism.”

There are some ways in which Jeffress seems like an unlikely political operator. His 24 books have focused overwhelmingly on spiritual matters, including the end times, forgiveness, and the afterlife. His latest, which Trump recommended on Twitter, is about the nature of heaven. (When I attended, the church was giving out free copies to every new visitor.) But Jeffress has had a taste for making headlines since before he took the helm at First Baptist. As pastor of a church near the Oklahoma border in 1998, he offered to pay the local public library for its copies of Heather Has Two Mommies and another children’s book about gay parents, in exchange for a promise not to replace them; the City Council backed him up, and eventually the ACLU got involved. In 2011, when Mitt Romney was running for president, Jeffress called Mormonism a “cult” at a conference hosted by the Family Research Council. The church was sufficiently toxic by 2013 that Tim Tebow pulled out of a speaking engagement there. In return, Jeffress preached about men who “wimp out” rather than standing up for the truth. (Can a sermon serve as a subtweet?) The next year he wrote a book about Biblical prophecy that said Obama’s support for gay marriage was paving the way for the Antichrist.

But in the Trump era, Jeffress has truly come into his own as a political voice. He threw his chips in with the candidate early, telling attendees at a Dallas campaign rally in February 2016 that Trump would be a “true friend” to evangelicals. Preaching to Trump at a private service the morning of his inauguration, he compared him to the Old Testament figure of Nehemiah, who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem; “God is not against building walls,” Jeffress told the incoming president. (He has also compared Trump to Winston Churchill.) He is a reliable defender not just of Trump’s overtures to evangelicals but also of the president’s darkest and most dangerous instincts. He defended Trump’s “shithole” remarks in January and characterized Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots last summer as an attempt to “denounce all racism.” In August, he told Bill O’Reilly that Trump had the moral authority to assassinate Kim Jong-un or pre-emptively strike North Korea with a nuclear weapon, going too far even for O’Reilly. Jeffress’ support for Trump has raised his profile, but it has also earned him a torrent of criticism from his peers. The president is liked by the evangelical rank and file, who voted for him overwhelmingly, but he has remarkably few outspoken supporters among their leaders.

Within his own congregation, though, no one seems particularly rankled by the way Jeffress has merged the spiritual and the political. When I visited over two Sundays in late December and early January, the pews were full and the mood was cheerful. One volunteer told me she started attending about a year ago, and the place has changed her life. A church representative said that the church has grown in attendance and financial giving for every year of Jeffress’ leadership and that 2017 saw the highest giving in the church’s 150-year history. “My church is glad that I have an ability to have a little bit of influence in the country,” Jeffress told me. The Hannity interview at First Baptist, for example, was promoted as a chance for members to invite outside guests to church with them—people who might be interested in Hannity but not necessarily in church. And as for the “Make America Great Again” hymn, written by the church’s former music minister and performed at that D.C. concert? It was never meant to be sung in church. (The song has since been added to the top licensed song database for churches planning their worship services.)

Jeffress is not an absent figurehead; he preaches at First Baptist almost every week. Paula White, by contrast, told the Washington Post last year that she has relinquished many of her pastoral duties as her star has risen in Washington. Her son said at the time that the majority-black church had lost several hundred members and about $10,000 a week in donations because of Trump’s unpopularity with the black community. First Baptist is mostly white but far from exclusively so. When my toddler and I sat in the section designated for young families, we were seated within one pew of black, East Asian, South Asian, and Hispanic families.

The truth is, other than Patterson’s comment about Roe v. Wade, there was little I heard or saw at First Baptist that would have been out of place at any other theologically conservative church in America. I sang “Amazing Grace” and “Power in the Blood,” and my daughter made a construction-paper crown in the church nursery. Jeffress insisted that he has mentioned Trump’s name from the pulpit perhaps three times in the past two years. He added that he views abortion and religious freedom, unlike health care and tax policy, as “biblical issues”—a handy distinction that carves out quite a bit of room for “nonpolitical” opining. (Jeffress has spoken publicly about both health care policy and tax reform.) Still, the average attendee at First Baptist will experience a worship service not a Trump rally. That’s part of what makes the church so disquieting. It is a thoroughly mainstream evangelical church whose very ordinariness serves as an advertisement for Trump’s own normalcy.

The first week in January, Jeffress opened his sermon in a reflective mode, with an anecdote about the deaths of his parents. He stepped out from behind the large wooden podium, holding his well-worn Bible open in his hands. Jeffress is a small man, and the deep stage and large Bible made him look even smaller. Preaching from a passage in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings about the death of the Prophet Elijah, Jeffress argued for the importance of living one’s entire life with its end in mind. He talked about his habit of wandering into the church’s old sanctuary, now used for the church’s youth-oriented contemporary worship service; it’s the room where he himself was baptized and where he performed his first baptisms as a minister. It’s a good thing, Jeffress told the congregation, to reflect back on one’s own spiritual history and to contemplate the legacy you will leave behind. “In Christian circles, we get caught up in the cult of personality,” he said. We celebrate great believers like Elijah or Moses, and fear their heroism is irreplaceable. That’s a mistake, he said: “God can work through anyone.”