When the Rev. Robert Jeffress declared this week that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,” many who grew up in Sunday School struggled to square the teaching of the president’s favorite pastor with the words of Jesus. How could the One who taught “love your enemies” be understood to endorse nuclear holocaust? Jeffress thinks his declaration is self-evident, which only highlights the fact that religious extremism could destroy the world as we know it. Long accused of extremism themselves, our Muslim neighbors are right to ask, who radicalized Rev. Jeffress and his fellow Trumpvangelicals?
While few white evangelicals are as extreme as Jeffress, the roots of the reactionary Christian nationalism we are witnessing in America go back to this nation’s original sin of genocide and race-based slavery. The violence required to steal this land from Native Americans and build an economy on stolen labor was not only un-Christian, it was inhuman. Yet people of faith suppressed their conscience, rejected the plain reading of Scripture that teaches of the God of justice releasing slavery and letting the oppressed go free, and silenced their prophets for generations, hardening their hearts against the very truth that could have set them free. We deceive ourselves if we believe that America has healed from this spiritual wound. We carry it with us always.
But a religion that sanctions injustice and fuels violence has never been the only faith in this land. The most fervent abolitionists who fought against slavery were also people of faith, reading the same Bible to find strength for prophetic resistance and indomitable hope. Slaveholder religion was Christianity. But enslaved people read the Bible and heard in its songs and stories a way to freedom. They believed and practiced a better hope.
This battle of theologies continued after the Civil War. Slaveholder religion morphed into a reactionary faith that worked to overthrow Reconstruction and “redeem” America from so-called “Negro rule.” A pattern emerged in the American story: every era of racial progress was met with a backlash of regression—a white supremacist movement to take back the country and keep the bottom divided and controlled. It is the call and response of American history—what Carol Anderson has rightly named “white rage.” The fervor of its indignation has always been faith-fueled, and nowhere is it embodied more completely today that in the leadership of Robert Jeffress.
As Bible scholars and preachers, we know the extremism of Trumpvangelicals demands a witness to that other faith tradition which has always worked to bring about justice and peace. Such a witness is as ancient as the Scriptures themselves, which record the Apostle Paul’s admonition of preachers in Galatia who turned the good news of freedom against itself. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel,” he writes. We say the same to Robert Jeffress. The gospel he is preaching is no gospel at all. It must be condemned as anti-Christian theology.
There is a battle for public theology taking place today. Its battle lines are seen clearly when you map out the states and regions that have the highest poverty and child poverty rates, the lowest wages, the most people without access to health care, the worst environmental protections, the worst immigrant and LGBTQ protections, and the highest rates of voter suppression. Almost to the county, these places also have the highest numbers of people who profess to be Protestant Evangelicals.
America’s spiritual sickness goes much deeper than our clearly troubled president. For decades, the backlash against this nation’s civil rights movement has been de-racialized and woven into the fabric of some white (and some non-white) evangelicals’ value system. Trusting pastors who have been carefully cultivated by political operatives, millions of everyday Christians have “voted their values” on abortion, marriage, and prayer in schools, only to elect people who promote policies that serve the rich and harm those Jesus called “the least of these.”
Many have responded to this hijacking of faith by distancing themselves from faith communities, seeking the common good under the banner of partisan politics or secular justice movements. In so doing, however, they abandon the moral power of a movement rooted in our deepest faith and constitutional traditions—a force that not only motivates people for struggle, but also sustains and guides us to become something we have not yet been.
When faith is being used to justify nuclear holocaust, too much is at stake for us to give up the language of good news. We know a better gospel, and we are drawing on its deepest resources to fuel a movement of moral resistance. Even if we cannot convince the Trumpvangelicals that they are wrong, we are determined to let the world know that there is a better gospel. It is a gospel of justice, of inclusion, of love, of breaking every chain that oppresses and subjugates God’s children. Even if it is silenced, it will rise again like its Founder in the power of love.