Donald Trump heard a sermon Friday morning from a Southern Baptist pastor who has history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays.
The sermon was delivered by Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, who compared Trump to the story of the biblical leader Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel.
Israel had been in bondage for decades, Jeffress explained, and the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God did not choose a politician or a priest but chose a builder instead. The first step of rebuilding the nation, Jeffress said, was the building of a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack.
“You see, God is not against building walls,” Jeffress said in his sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C.
Nehemiah, according to the biblical account, completed the project in 52 days. Why was Nehemiah so successful in building the wall and rebuilding the nation? Jeffress said that Nehemiah refused to allow his critics to distract him, noting how some people still don’t believe Trump will succeed in his agenda.
Nehemiah, Jeffress said, had two antagonists named Sanballat and Tobiah. “They were the mainstream media of their day,” he said. “They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.”
He noted that Nehemiah answered his critics by saying: “I’m doing a great work. . . . Why should I stop the work and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Trump’s work, he said, “is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.”
Nehemiah faced setbacks, Jeffress noted, including an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies and discouragement among the citizens. “The true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him,” he said. “And knowing you, I believe it’s going to take a lot to stop you.”
Jeffress was an early supporter of Trump, a Presbyterian who courted evangelicals during the election. Jeffress said in his sermon that it was one year ago this weekend that he was with Trump on his jet flying around Iowa. After sharing Wendy’s cheeseburgers, Jeffress said, he believed Trump would be the next president and that it would be because God placed him there.
Jeffress said Trump has assembled an “unbelievably talented group of advisers” and has Vice President-elect Mike Pence by his side, “a great and godly man.” “Mr. President-elect, I don’t believe we have ever had a president with as many natural gifts as you,” he said. But, Jeffress said, “we need God’s supernatural power.”
He said Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated with Americans and that “Psalm 33:12 gives us the starting point for making that happen: ‘Blessed — great — is the nation whose God is the Lord.’”
Jeffress sermon seems, on the one hand, to be encouraging Trump’s hubris, said Daniel Silliman, a historian of 20th century American religion and culture who teaches in the history department at the University of Notre Dame. On the other hand, Jeffress was trying to direct him towards spiritual humility.
Evangelist Billy Graham’s consistent advice to presidents was that they should pray and take comfort in the knowledge so many people are praying for them, something President Reagan took seriously. Edward L.R. Elson, the minister of the National Presbyterian Church in D.C. who baptized President Eisenhower after he was elected, made a similar point that he needed to turn to a higher power.
But Jeffress’s sermon was pretty political compared to those who have preceded him, Silliman said. “With the Daniel citation, Jeffress suggests God (like the people who supported Trump) is waiting to see if he delivers on his campaign promises,” Silliman said. “There’s less emphasis on loving mercy and walking humbly before God and more on building the wall.”
Following the example of President Obama and George W. Bush before him, Trump attended the private service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is near the White House. The morning worship service on Inauguration Day tradition began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
Jeffress has said in the past that Obama paved the way for the antichrist. He drew wide attention when he condemned Mormonism as a “cult,” telling Christians not to vote for Mitt Romney during the 2012 Republican primary (though he later support Romney over Obama in the general election). Jeffress has also said Islam is an “evil religion,” that the Catholic Church was led astray by Satan and that gays live a “miserable” and “filthy” lifestyle.
His remarks have led even some in his own denomination to decry him. Trump’s inauguration organizers chose Jeffress to preach, according to CNN. During the inauguration, five pastors and one rabbi will deliver prayers and readings.
The full text of the sermon is below:
When God chooses a leader: Nehemiah 1:11
Introduction: President-elect and Mrs. Trump, Vice-President-elect and Mrs. Pence, families and friends, it’s an honor to be with you on this historic day.
President-elect Trump, I remember that it was exactly one year ago this weekend that I was with you on your Citation jet flying around Iowa before the first caucus or primary vote was cast. After our Wendy’s cheeseburgers, I said that I believed that you would be the next President of the United States. And if that happened, it would be because God had placed you there.
As the prophet Daniel said, it is God who removes and establishes leaders.
Today ─ one year later ─ God has raised you and Vice-President-elect Pence up for a great, eternal purpose.
When I think of you, President-elect Trump, I am reminded of another great leader God chose thousands of years ago in Israel. The nation had been in bondage for decades, the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God raised up a powerful leader to restore the nation. And the man God chose was neither a politician nor a priest. Instead, God chose a builder whose name was Nehemiah.
And the first step of rebuilding the nation was the building of a great wall. God instructed Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack. You see, God is NOT against building walls!
And the Old Testament book of Nehemiah records how Nehemiah completed that massive project in record time — just 52 days.
Why was Nehemiah so successful in building the wall and rebuilding the nation?
I. Nehemiah Refused To Allow His Critics To Distract Him
Someone has said there are three guaranteed ways to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.
Any true leader is going to face criticism.
President-elect Trump, you have had your share of critics from the day you announced you were running for President, but you’ve confounded them at every turn. First, they said you couldn’t win the nomination, but you ended up garnering the most votes of any Republican in history. Then they said that was a fluke, but you couldn’t win the election. And you handily defeated your opponent. And now your critics say you can’t possibly succeed in your agenda.
Nehemiah had his own share of critics. Two of his chief antagonists were named Sanballat and Tobiah. They were the mainstream media of their day. They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.
At one point, they said, “Nehemiah, you need to stop the project and come down from the wall and have a meeting with us.”
Nehemiah’s response was classic: “I’m doing a great work . . . why should I stop the work and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3)
President-elect Trump, you, Vice President-elect Pence, and your team have been called by God and elected by the people to do a great work. It is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.
II. Nehemiah Refused To Allow Setbacks To Stop Him
As you read through Nehemiah’s journal, you’ll find that he faced tremendous obstacles as he attempted to rebuild the nation: an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies, and discouragement among the citizens.
But none of those setbacks was enough to stop Nehemiah.
Some years ago two sports commentators on television were discussing the late Hall of Famer Walter Peyton, the running back for the Chicago Bears. One commentator said, “Can you believe that during his career Peyton has run more than nine miles with a football?”
The other commentator replied, “What’s even more amazing is that every 3.8 yards of those nine miles Peyton got knocked down by a guy twice his size! But he got back up every time and kept moving forward in spite of those bruising hits and hard knocks.”
President Trump, you, your team and your families are going to face some bruising setbacks. But remember . .
The true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him. And knowing you, I believe it’s going to take a lot to stop you.
III. Nehemiah Sought God’s Help To Empower Him
Nehemiah was a gifted leader, but he knew he could not succeed without God’s divine help. And that is why as he began the great work, Nehemiah knelt before God and prayed:
“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant who delights in revering your name. Give your servant success today . . .” (Nehemiah 1:11)
Mr. President-elect, I don’t believe we have ever had a president with as many natural gifts as you. As you know, the reason I endorsed you within weeks of your announcement that you were running was because I believed that you were the only candidate who possessed the leadership skills necessary to reverse the downward trajectory of our nation.
And beginning with Vice President-elect Pence ─ a great and godly man ─ you’ve assembled an unbelievably talented group of advisers around you.
But the challenges facing our nation are so great that it will take more than natural ability to meet them. We need God’s supernatural power.
The good news is that the same God who empowered Nehemiah nearly 2500 years ago is available to every one of us today who is willing to humble himself and ask for His help.
God says in Psalm 50:15 “Call upon Me in the day of trouble I shall rescue you and you will honor Me.”
When President Ronald Reagan addressed the Republican National Convention in my city of Dallas in 1984 he said, “America needs God more than God needs America. If we ever forget that we are “one nation under God,” then we will be a nation gone under.”
President-elect Trump, you had a campaign slogan that resonated with tens of millions of Americans because it spoke to their heartfelt desire: “Make America Great Again.”
Psalm 33:12 gives us the starting point for making that happen: “Blessed — great — is the nation whose God is the Lord.”
May God bless President-elect Trump, Vice-President-elect Pence, their families and advisers. And may God truly bless the United States of America.