It’s easy to look at Robert Jeffress defending President Trump again on Fox News and wonder how the First Baptist Church of Dallas got so political.
Jeffress, the pastor of the Texas church since 2007, has supported Donald Trump without any sign of hesitation. He continues, unwavering, through scandal after scandal. His church of 12,000 even has a Trump-inspired song, a hymn to “Make America Great Again.”
But the First Baptist Church of Dallas didn’t just get political. It’s been that way for a long time.
Monday marked an anniversary for the church. It was founded on July 30, 1868, by three men and eight women. That was 150 years ago. It’s been political for almost as long.
Subscribe to our daily or weekly email
Get the best writing about religion, politics, and culture, direct to your inbox.
Before Jeffress, there was W.A. Criswell. When Criswell died in 2002, his obituary from the Associated Press said the preacher “mostly eschewed politics.” But that’s not true. He ran up to politics and gave it a great big hug.
Criswell was called to the pulpit of First Baptist Church in 1944. The next year, he preached a sermon on Christian America. “How indebted we are to the Almighty God for the government under which we live,” he said. “On the personality of God our forefathers launched our great ship of state.”
In the sermon, Criswell backed a local bond that was coming up for a vote, but he didn’t just speak on non-controversial, local topics. When given the chance, Criswell took a strong position on the most controversial political issue of his day: racial segregation. He supported it. Vociferously. In fact, he thought the people pushing desegregation were evil. “A bunch of infidels,” he called them, “dying from the neck up.”
Criswell, who was Billy Graham’s personal pastor, preached this first at an evangelism conference in South Carolina in 1956. The segregationist diatribe was so popular, he was asked to reprise it for a joint session of the South Carolina legislature the same year. He obliged.
Criswell preached that the integrationists were “trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.” Even worse, he said, Baptists were succumbing to the pressure of civil rights activists. Criswell said these Baptists were an embarrassment to their martyred forefathers.
There was some backlash to the speech but it also won Criswell some new political friends. H.L. Hunt, a wealthy Texas oilman and a committed conservative, liked what he heard. Hunt and his third wife started attending First Baptist Church. When the Catholic John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, Hunt and Criswell worked together to stop him.
Criswell preached about the dangers of a Catholic president. “The institution of Roman Catholicism is not only a religion,” he wrote. “It is a political tyranny.” A Catholic president might well shut down all non-Catholic churches, Criswell warned. Hunt paid to print and distribute 200,000 copies of the the sermon. It was, by one estimate, the most widely distributed piece of campaign literature in 1960.
But sure, “eschewed politics.”
Criswell weighed in on presidential politics again in 1976, condemning the Southern Baptist candidate, Jimmy Carter, and endorsing the Republican Gerald Ford. “I’m for him,” he told reporters, standing next to Ford on the steps of his church, “yes sir.”
Criswell was happy, four years later, to host Ronald Reagan for a political rally, and four years after that to support Reagan for re-election. “I think he’s the best President we ever had,” Criswell said. As Jeffress recently pointed out, this wasn’t because of the twice-married former movie star’s moral character. Criswell supported Reagan because of Reagan’s politics.
In 1984, Criswell gave the benediction for the Republican National Convention and Rick Warren, then an up-and-coming megachurch pastor, described Criswell as the “Baptist pope.”
But it also wasn’t Criswell who turned the First Baptist Church of Dallas political. Before him, there was George W. Truett. In his day, Truett was so famous that some good Christian moms named their babies after him. One such baby was Truett Cathy, who grew up to be the founder of Chick-fil-A.
Truett once preached what historians Barry Hankins and Thomas Kidd call “the most famous sermon in Southern Baptist history.” He preached it on the steps of the United States capitol building in 1920.
Truett started by invoking the Founding Fathers: “We shall do well,” he preached, “both as citizens and as Christians, if we will hark back to…the days of Washington and Jefferson and Madison.”
For Truett, the main issue was religious liberty. He believed in a strong separation of church and state, but also linked the Baptist project and the American project in a grand vision of history. “Democracy is the goal toward which all feet are traveling,” he said, “whether in state or in church.”
He imagined the Baptist Church and American government as strong allies, closely identified. Good Americans were good Baptists; good Baptists were good Americans. Not like Catholics. American Catholics, Truett argued, couldn’t be true to their hierarchical church and their democratic country at the same time. Religious liberty, as he conceived it, was a problem for Catholics. But Baptists could and should support America with their whole hearts, at home and especially abroad.
Truett wanted America to be a global power. He was a strong supporter of U.S. involvement in World War I. The war would make the world safe for democracy, and, Truett said, “the triumph of democracy, thank God, means the triumph of Baptists everywhere.”
As one historian wrote, Truett gave Baptists “a public voice.” But the First Baptist Church of Dallas was political before him too. Before Truett was called to the church in 1897, there was Samuel A. Hayden. Hayden was a kind of associate pastor at the church in the 1880s. His main ministry was actually a newspaper, the Texas Baptist and Herald.
Hayden hoped to establish one Baptist paper for the whole state, but he couldn’t quite pull that off, and he got bogged down in fights with other Texas Baptists. One critic accused him of trying to be “pope, boss and supreme dictator at will.” It was true he wanted influence. And the Texas Baptist and Herald did have some power. At its height, it had 20,000 subscribers.
Hayden, a Confederate veteran who fought at Shilo and Chickamauga, didn’t eschew politics either. His newspaper defined Baptist issues for a lot of people and some of those issues were political issues. The paper took a strong stance in favor of prohibition and against Catholics, among other things.
So Jeffress stands in a long tradition. He was asked again, last week, about his continued support for Donald Trump. Could he still support the president after the release of secret recordings that revealed Trump talking about paying off a Playboy model, apparently to keep her silent about an extra-marital affair?
“You know,” Jeffress said, “this is not an unusual thing. We’ve been here before.”
That maybe slightly overstates things, but Jeffress has a point. He didn’t bring politics to the First Baptist Church of Dallas. He’s not doing something new. This is a tradition for the Texas church celebrating its 150th anniversary.