One of President Donald Trump’s most vocal religious advisers waded into the NFL protest controversy this morning, saying those who kneel during the national anthem in a silent demonstration against racism should “thank God” they aren’t “shot in the head” as he believes they would be for protesting in North Korea.
Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist who heads up First Baptist Church in Dallas, made the comments during a Fox & Friends segment Monday morning. After claiming the widespread protests over the weekend disrespected “our country” and “our leaders,” he attempted to link the controversy to North Korea.
“I think what these players are doing is absolutely wrong,” Jeffress said. “These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they’re also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking a knee like they would be if they were in North Korea.”
Jeffress’ exact point was not immediately clear, and was not repeated by pastor and former NFL player Michel Faulkner, his fellow guest on the show. By citing North Korea’s history of human rights abuses—which include ruthlessly punishing political dissent—to condemn Americans exercising their constitutional right to protest, Jeffress appeared to undermine his own argument. Jeffress did not return ThinkProgress’ requests for clarification.
“These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they’re also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking a knee like they would be if they were in North Korea.”
The pastor also sought to contrast the NFL protests with a football coach who was allegedly fired for praying and a conservative Christian couple in Oregon who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple, saying “they didn’t respond [to frustration in society] by calling then-president Barack Obama a ‘bum.’”
Here, too, Jeffress’ point was difficult to discern. He appeared to be referencing LeBron James’ tweet criticizing the president for rescinding a White House invitation to Stephen Curry and the rest of Gold State Warriors basketball team, somewhat of a separate controversy that played out this past weekend. But while the Oregon bakers, who are now the subject of a Supreme Court case, have not referred to Obama as a “bum,” Jeffress did not mention his own staunch criticism of the former president: he once wrote that Obama’s support for same-sex marriage was “paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.”
Despite his uneven arguments, the pastor was unequivocal in his support for Donald Trump. Jeffress, whose choir once sang a hymn-like tune entitled “Make America Great Again”, insisted the president was right to criticize the NFL players who demonstrated. And while NFL star Colin Kaepernick has made clear that his original kneeling protest is rooted in a critique of racial injustice, Jeffress repeated Trump’s claim that the controversy “has nothing to do with race.”
“I think tens of millions of Americans agree with President Trump when he says [NFL players who protest] ought to be called out for this,” Jeffress said. “I know this president. President Trump is not a racist. For President Trump this is not about race. It’s about respect of country.”
Jeffress has become an increasingly vocal supporter of Trump over the past two years, and recently claimed that God gives Trump the “authority” to attack North Korea or assassinate its leader Kim Jong-Un. Both liberal and conservative faith leaders blasted his remarks as theologically dubious, but Jeffress echoed a similar vision of what scholars call “Christian nationalism” on Monday morning.
“Many of these players claim to be strong Christians, and I believe they are,” Jeffress said. “And I think they ought to remember what Jesus said—render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. Jesus said we have a responsibility toward our government. We owe our government not just our taxes, but we owe them our respect and our prayers.”
Versions of the passage in question appear several times in the Bible, but their interpretation has been the subject of heated debate among Christian theologians for centuries. Jeffress did not detail how he weds the passage—which is specifically about paying taxes to the Roman Empire—to the notion that citizens cannot criticize or demonstrate against their leaders, nor did he explain why his own criticisms of Obama are not subject to the same standard.
The pastor is one of roughly two-dozen conservative Christian leaders who serve on Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory board. Jeffress, who delivered a sermon to Trump on the morning of his inauguration entitled “When God Chooses A Leader,” is well known for making controversial statements: he has claimed that homosexuality leads to pedophilia and described Catholicism as emerging from a “cult-like, pagan religion,” among other things.
Since publishing this article, Jeffress has reiterated his comments on Fox News, saying he is “doubling down” on his North Korea remarks before adding the caveat that he believes Christians can criticize their government when “their law conflicts with Christian law.” He did not specify his definition of Christian law.
A representative for Jeffress also supplied ThinkProgress with the following statement:
I stand by my comments as taken within their full context. It is an absolute fact that in many countries of the world professional athletes would be imprisoned – or worse – for publicly opposing their nation’s anthem or disrespecting their national leaders. If any member of the press doubts this fact then I would encourage them to take a trip to North Korea themselves, publicly shame Kim Jong-un, and then see what happens. All of us should thank God every day that we live in a country where we do not have to fear government persecution for expressing our beliefs.
ThinkProgress’ article did not question North Korea’s history of human rights abuses.