Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, insisted on recent episodes of his “Pathway to Victory” broadcast that “America is a Christian Nation.” Jeffress, who hosted Vice President Mike Pence for a “Celebrate Freedom Sunday” worship service on June 28, is a regular fixture on Fox News, where he relentlessly promotes President Donald Trump and denounces the president’s opponents. Pathway to Victory is aired daily on more than 900 radio stations in the U.S., according to First Baptist.
In the week between Pence’s appearance and the Fourth of July, Jeffress devoted two Pathways to Victory episodes to the theme “America at a Crossroads,” followed by episodes on July 1 and July 2 titled “America is a Christian Nation.” The overlapping content of those programs—which seem to recycle sermons Jeffress has delivered—pushed several themes:
- America was founded as a Christian nation.
- The First Amendment was designed to put all Christian denominations on equal footing, not to make Christianity “subservient” to other religions.
- Secularists and other infidels have perverted the meaning of the Constitution.
- Politics in the U.S. today is a battle between good and evil.
To buttress his case that America has always been a Christian nation, Jeffress took a page from oft-debunked religious-right pseudo-historian David Barton, cherry-picking quotes from the Founding Fathers and early court decisions. Jeffress cited an 1844 case about a wealthy man in Pennsylvania who left money in his will to start a school for orphans with the stipulation that no Christian minister could teach in the school. Some of the man’s heirs sued on various grounds; they argued in part that the prohibition on clergy teaching at the school discriminated against Christianity. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and upheld the will, saying that the prohibition on ministers as teachers did not violate the state constitution, impugn Christianity or prevent lay people from teaching the Bible. Jeffress quoted approvingly from a section of the ruling:
Likewise, the court had something to say about those who would say, ‘Well then, you’ve got to treat all religions the same.’ They said, ‘It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider what the legal effect of such a device in Pennsylvania for the establishment of a school or college for the propagation of Judaism or deism or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country.”
Jeffress also cited a 1799 decision by the Maryland Supreme Court that included the assertion, “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion” of the United States. Jeffress adds:
Now think about it. Seven years after the ratification of the First Amendment, this court says we have an established religion. It is the Christian religion. They understood exactly what the founders had in mind. They understood that yes, this is a Christian nation, but no one denomination is to be elevated [over] another. ‘Cause look at the second phrase. Yes, the Christian religion is the established religion, ‘and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.’
It seems less likely that Jeffress or his religious-right allies would embrace the rest of the holding in that case, which inserted the court into a dispute over a congregation’s effort to dismiss and replace its minister.
Jeffress did discuss the letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, in which Jefferson praised the First Amendment for having built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” But, Jeffress claimed, “The context of this was the elevation of one Christian denomination over another Christian denomination. Never in their wildest imaginations did Thomas Jefferson or the Founding Fathers ever believe that that First Amendment would be perverted in such a way as to try to separate our country from its Christian heritage.”
In fact, Jefferson was extremely proud of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—widely considered a precursor to the First Amendment—and the legislative battle that prevented “Jesus Christ” from being inserted into its preamble, which made clear, in Jefferson’s words, that the law was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”
In his broadcasts, Jeffress cited a litany of commonly voiced religious-right complaints about Supreme Court rulings, beginning with a series of 20th Century rulings that strengthened church-state separation and put an end to official prayer and devotional Bible readings in public schools. Contrasting them with the language used by 19th Century courts and politicians. Jeffress asked:
And here’s the question: What has changed? What has changed? In these 150 years, has the Constitution changed and nobody told us? Is that what happened? Of course not. What has happened is we have allowed the secularists, the humanists, the atheists, the infidels, to pervert our Constitution into something our Founding Fathers never intended. And it is time for Americans to stand up and say ‘Enough! We’re not going to allow this in our Christian country anymore.’ It is time to put an end to this.
Jeffress used two metaphors for describing the court rulings he claims perverted the Constitution. In one telling, each case was a stone building the wall of separation ever higher. In another, each case was like an explosion set in a building’s foundation to bring it down in an implosion. Roe v. Wade and the marriage equality decision in Obergefell v. Hodges were other “explosions,” he said, claiming that the country is living in that moment between the explosions and the building’s collapse: “No nation that outlaws the mention of God in the public square, that celebrates the murder of its own children, that destroys the most basic unit of society—the family—no nation is going to survive that.”
But Jeffress doesn’t want his audience to despair. “No, this is not depressing as long as you understand our purpose as Christians. If you understand our purpose as Christians, there’s never been a better time to be alive and living in America than right now.” Christians, he said, are meant to push back against evil. And since God designed government to be a “restrainer of evil,” he said, “when we elect government officials, we are determining the moral and spiritual direction of our country.”
Jeffress is not subtle. Citing the candidates’ different positions on abortion, he portrayed the 2016 election between Trump and Hillary Clinton as a battle “between good and evil.” And he said that’s true of politics in the U.S. today. “If you don’t hear another word I say this morning, hear this: what we’re facing in this country is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats. It is a battle between good and evil, between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan,” he said. “That’s exactly what is at stake in this country.”
On the recent broadcasts, Jeffress talked about his church’s $135 million, six-block campus in downtown Dallas, which he said is debt-free. He repeatedly asked people to contribute money to a $575,000 matching campaign to “replenish the arsenal” and expand his program’s reach before a July 5 deadline. First Baptist received between $2 million and $5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, according to records released recently by the Trump administration. Jeffress also promoted his most recent book, “Praying for America,” which urges people to vote for “God-honoring candidates.”
The Christian-nation version of the U.S. founding promoted by Jeffress and Barton has been widely challenged by historians, including evangelical Christians like John Fea, author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”