This past Sunday Pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent and controversial Southern Baptist pastor invited conservative political commentator Sean Hannity to speak at his church on Sunday morning, paired with his own sermon titled “America at the Crossroads.” Instead of reading commentary about the event, I first listened to both the sermon and the interview with Sean Hannity. Here’s my own take on the message:
The Sunday event was controversial before Jeffress or Hannity said a word. The whole setup was problematic to begin with. Hannity is a political commentator and Jeffress invited him to a worship service. Not only that, but Hannity is a partisan. He isn’t exactly known for his even-handedness. Now, I am not one of those who believe that pastors should never talk about politics (as I discussed in this post), but (1) I view the worship service as a sacred event, specially set aside for worship (and allegiance) to God, and (2) it’s not hard to see how the Hannity interview would distract from both that worship and the task of gospel proclamation.
I’m not sure which came first in the service, the interview or the sermon, but I listened to the sermon first so I’ll start there.
First let me say that there was nothing particularly theologically objectionable in “America at the Crossroads.” (I struggle to admit it but) Jeffress and I are probably really close in our interpretation of Scripture. Where we disagree, as we’ll see, is in our interpretation in what is wrong with America and how to fix it.
A Coming Implosion
Jeffress starts the sermon with the story of the demolition of their old church building (to make room for the new one). It started with a series of explosions around the base of the building, followed by a pause, and then the sudden implosion. America, Jeffress said, had already experienced the explosions and we are now merely living in the pause before the coming implosion.
What are those explosions? Jeffress pointed to three Supreme Court decisions, the first which took prayer out of the schools, the second which legalized abortion, and the third which legalized gay marriage. The first was one of a series of events which took Christianity out of the public sphere, the second sanctioned murder, and the third undermines the most foundational of institutions, marriage.
What are we to do? Is there any hope for America? Jeffress argues that the duty of Christians now is to be salt in the world. How can we be salt? We need to get out of the salt shaker and influence the political process. We need to vote for representatives who will reverse the direction our nation has taken. In doing so, we will love our neighbor by ensuring that civil government does its role of restraining evil and, in doing so, avoids the coming implosion.
Jeffress ends the sermon by saying that it’s also important to help people come to faith, to turn America around one person at a time.
The problem and the solution – good vs evil
Except for the bit at the end, Jeffress identified both the problem and the solution in America to be political. We’re where we’re at because of a series of political decisions. Therefore, the solution is also political, the election of leaders who will reverse those decisions and get our country back on track.
This allows Jeffress to frame the 2016 election as good vs evil (I’m not exaggerating here, he specifically said that if there was one thing you should take out of the message it was that elections are a battle between good and evil.) On the one side you had Trump who opposed abortion. On the other side you had Clinton, who supported it in all its forms. Through this lens Trump is the force for good and Clinton the force for evil. The choice was clear.
Has Jeffress rightly identified the problem?
But what if the problems we face aren’t primarily political? I’ve become convinced that our problems are deeper than mere politics, but that they spring up from a long-secularizing culture. (For a recent account of this cultural decline see the first couple chapters of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option). Furthermore, the church should have acted in a counter-cultural “salty” way but, instead, has itself faced the same secularizing cultural creep as the rest of the nation. We’ve become both a nation and a church of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”, embracing a shallow faith. We’ve wrapped up many cultural narratives in religious garb and called it Christianity. Our political condition is, in part, a function of that cultural decline and the failure of the church to remain faithful to the full gospel.
If the problems are more broadly cultural, both outside and inside the church, then the solution won’t be political, at least it won’t be primarily political. Like Jeffress, I agree that the solution will be for the church to be “salt” in the world, but I interpret that salt with a different emphasis. To be the salt the church will need to recapture the primacy of the gospel, it will need to reignited with a fire for evangelism, it will need to re-evaluate the way it has been influenced by cultural narratives that are opposed to the way of Christ.
My perspective on 2016 and beyond.
This was the primary lens by which I viewed the 2016 election. Through this lens I saw the election not between good and evil, but between evil in different forms. Trump had the right position on abortion, but it was still hard for me to view him as pro-life in any sort of broad sense. Instead, his words and actions demonstrated again and again that he was a fool, in the biblical sense, and thus unfit for authority, especially this highest position of authority. I saw broad evangelical support for Trump as a step backwards both for the culture and for the faithfulness of the church. By aligning ourselves with such a troubled man, I worried that we (as the church) were both damaging our witness and compromising our moral standards.
I don’t write this to take another shot at Trump, but to show how drastically different Jeffress and I understand both the problem and the solution. For Jeffress the political problem required a political solution, i.e., Trump. For me, both Trump and Clinton were symptoms of the cultural/church problem and the solution was to disentangle ourselves from the whole mess, either by opting out or selecting a different candidate altogether. This is, of course, my interpretation, and a minority one at that. My conscience is clear, but so are the consciences of others who, like Jeffress, saw the world differently (Or, who had the same concerns I did but still felt an obligation to oppose Clinton’s extreme abortion position by voting for Trump.) I’m not here to judge, but to lend my voice to the community as a whole.
Be the Salt.
Pastor Jeffress says we should be the salt of the earth. I agree. But that includes a lot more than political engagement. It means, first, obedience to Christ and with it, love for neighbor. It means inner transformation. It means gospel distinctiveness. It means participation within the local church. Political engagement plays a role, but we need to be wary of overplaying that one task. I’m not against talking about political issues from the pulpit. Christ is Lord over all and it’s the task of Christians to see how the Lordship of Christ affects all areas of life. But we can never let politics eclipse the rest. It must always be seen within and under the broader context of discipleship. My fear is that a sermon like “America at the Crossroads” will give the wrong impression, even if it’s not what Jeffress intends, that discipleship means fighting the liberals and retaking political power and that a successful church is one that mobilizes voters towards that end.
What’s wrong with the Hannity interview
If you want some good analysis on the interview, I recommend to you this article by Rod Dreher. Dreher says it better than I but basically Hannity says that he rejects the Roman Catholic view of the Papal Authority because he believes that the authority Jesus was describing to Peter came from God speaking directly into Peter’s heart. Hannity goes on to say that he sees this personal/private revelation as God speaking to our consciences. Hannity himself tries to listen to this voice, which he equates to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to guide his spiritual life. It might be possible to read this as nothing more than “the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin” but given that he tied it to Peter’s authority it sounds a lot more like he’s saying “my conscience is the basis for spiritual authority in my life.” That’s not the Christian teaching on the matter – Protestant or Catholic. The conscience matters, but it’s not authoritative. Of course, Dreher admits, Hannity’s is the default position of many Christians in our country. Jeffress leaves Hannity’s statement uncorrected.
I share many of the same concerns of Jeffress. I’m worried that our nation is in moral decline and that the church is unprepared for the future. But, I’m also worried that continuing to entangle ourselves in partisan politics is a step in the wrong direction. We need to engage politically as one way to love our neighbors, but we need to be cautious. We need to keep the main things the main things: worship of God, faithfulness to Christ, and proclamation of the gospel.