The pews will be empty this Sunday at First Baptist Dallas, the megachurch whose pastor, Robert Jeffress, is one of President Trump’s most ardent supporters and a frequent guest on Fox News, where he espouses his evangelical, conservative, small-government views.
But in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the pastor has come around to a position that once would have been unthinkable. Following the recommendations of the United States government and the entire public health community, First Baptist will hold worship online.
“We are following very carefully the government’s guidelines in holding services,” Jeffress told Yahoo News in a conversation earlier this week. This reflected a departure from the mistrust of Washington that is commonly held by evangelical preachers. It was at First Dallas that Trump declared in 2017, “We worship God, not government,” blasting “bureaucrats” who meddle in issues of faith.
These days, however, more and more Americans are taking their cues from “bureaucrats” like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the veteran government epidemiologist who, along with Dr. Deborah Birx and other members of the White House coronavirus task force, has asked Americans to refrain from gathering in large groups, including for religious services.
Jeffress had initially been hesitant to move services online. But “the situation has changed,” he acknowledged to Yahoo News. Dallas County now has 74 cases, with 51 of them in the city itself. Accordingly, Jeffress relented earlier this week, as the scope of the epidemic became alarmingly clear.
Jeffress was never an explicit coronavirus conspiracy theorist like Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell Jr., who last week suggested the pandemic was a North Korean creation. Nor has he faced the criticism that has come the way of Paula White, a White House spiritual adviser who has used the epidemic to solicit donations.
“I don’t believe that God wants us to be paralyzed by fear over this coronavirus,” Jeffress said, “but he does want us to use common sense.”
But emergency precautions can fly in the face of religious rites. Some Eastern Orthodox churches have insisted they will continue to offer communion, an ancient rite that could spread the disease.
Though he has been a doubter of scientific consensus on climate change and doesn’t believe in evolution by natural selection, Jeffress appears to be taking the coronavirus seriously. Earlier this month, Jeffress wrote that all natural disasters, including pandemics, “can be ultimately traced to sin,” citing the New Testament Epistle to the Romans. But speaking some days later, he seemed to downplay the correlation.
“There is nobody who can say, with any authority, that this is God’s judgment against our country or our world. Any pastor or so-called prophet who says that the coronavirus is God’s judgment on America is either a crank or a crook,” he said.
During the height of the AIDS epidemic, some conservative religious leaders suggested the disease was a punishment for the nation’s supposed moral profligacy. More recently, some evangelical leaders have suggested that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina were punishments from God.
Jeffress said the White House is keeping faith leaders in general apprised of the coronavirus situation. The White House coronavirus task force is led by Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian. Trump has also been closely advised on public health matters by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is an observant Jew.
And though he has been accused of injecting politics into religion, Jeffress tried to describe the fight against the coronavirus in ecumenical terms. “I remind the people that the coronavirus is neither Democrat nor Republican,” he said. “This is a common enemy that will only be defeated by a united effort.”
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