Correction: An earlier version of this piece listed Nazareth as the place of Jesus’s birth. It was the place where his childhood took place but not where he was born.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church Dallas, one of President Trump’s most committed evangelical allies, gave the opening prayer Monday for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, provoking the ire of politicians and pundits. Mitt Romney bemoaned that a “religious bigot” like Jeffress, who has called Romney’s own Mormonism “a heresy from the pit of hell” and urged evangelicals not to vote for him in 2011, was representing the United States. The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott documented Jeffress’s long history of provocative statements about Catholics, Muslims and Hillary Clinton supporters.
The focus on Jeffress’s personal views, however, misses a vital reason for his inclusion in the U.S. program in Jerusalem: his position as pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas. The institutional legacy of this 150-year-old pulpit is key to understanding how long-running political and religious alignments have shaped Trump’s relationship with evangelicals and positioned particular allies, like Jeffress, to reap the benefits.
If there is a “first among equals” congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention, then the lectern at 1707 San Jacinto St. in downtown Dallas is its seat of power. Organized in 1868, the congregation epitomized the evangelical boom in late-20th-century America, emerging in the 1980s as “the largest church in America” with more than 26,000 members. Under Jeffress, who assumed leadership in 2007, First Baptist completed what it declared to be the largest building renovation “in modern church history” — a $135 million “spiritual oasis” that covers six blocks of downtown Dallas. Though claiming a more modest 12,000 attendees in recent years, it remains, in the boom-and-bust world of American evangelical churches, a distinguished member.
Well before it was one of America’s most prominent megachurches, First Baptist was playing an outsize role in American engagement with the Palestinian territories and Israel. In 1908, a young Palestinian Arab left his home town of Safed near the Sea of Galilee to earn money as a cattle rancher on the plains of Texas. Shukri Musa would return two years later with more than his wages. Engrossed in the state’s ubiquitous Southern Baptist culture, Musa came under the wing of George W. Truett, who was pastor of First Baptist from 1897 to 1944.
An outspoken advocate of missionary work, Truett baptized, trained and ordained Musa as a minister for a new venture, planting the Nazareth Baptist Church (now Evangelical Baptist Church in Nazareth) in the town of Jesus’s childhood. A 1925 visit by Southern Baptist leaders including Truett solidified American financial support for Musa’s work, creating a link between Dallas and the Upper Galilee region that existed for decades, long after the deaths of both Truett and Musa.
Truett’s successor, W.A. Criswell, a gifted preacher and organizer, joined First Baptist in 1944 (he would retire in 1993). Criswell was soon propelled into the vanguard of postwar Southern Baptist leadership. He pioneered the megachurch model that would sweep across American evangelicalism in the postwar years, and he merged his “old time religion” with the economic and political conservatism of a booming Dallas metropolis.
Criswell was also a fighter. He infamously opposed racial desegregation in the 1950s, but upon his assumption of the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1968, he recanted his views. He also drew national attention for his defense of biblical inerrancy, the teaching that the Bible contains no errors in its original manuscripts. While that stance led his opponents to call him a fundamentalist, it would ultimately position him to help lead the conservative takeover of the convention in the late 1970s.
Like his predecessor, Criswell was interested in missionary work in the Middle East and, initially, continued many of the same programs as Truett. But more than that, beginning in 1948, he was a staunch proponent of the new state of Israel.
Unlike Truett, Criswell was a premillennial dispensationalist who looked expectantly for God to restore the Jewish people to their homeland. This dispensational theology not only attuned Criswell to the fulfillment of prophecy but also to the political pressures facing Israel and the role of the United States in Middle East diplomacy.
For much of his career, therefore, Criswell was one of the most prominent Baptist allies of the state of Israel, expanding his engagement beyond the missionary work promoted by his predecessor. Criswell was convinced that Jews were fulfilling God’s prophetic plans in the Holy Land. He preached repeatedly on happenings in the Middle East, often drawing insight from biblical passages that seemed to prefigure current events.
After the Arab-Israeli War in June 1967, Criswell emerged as a pivotal Christian Zionist leader. He led tour groups to Israel in collaboration with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. He hosted Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, at the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1969 annual meeting. The next year, Israel and the Jewish National Fund announced a “World Baptist Forest” to be planted near the city of Nazareth. Criswell proudly oversaw the dedication ceremony.
Criswell also came to Israel’s aid in times of strife. During fighting in October 1973, his congregation took out an ad in the Dallas Morning Star urging Christians to write their congressmen and make donations to the Jewish Welfare Federation. Criswell defended Israeli actions in the 1982 Lebanon War, denounced the Palestine Liberation Organization and even criticized the Reagan administration for its insufficiently pro-Israel policies.
Criswell’s successors at First Baptist, including Jeffress, have in many ways simply walked the path Criswell paved. Like Criswell, Jeffress is a dispensationalist who understands events in the Middle East as progressing on a prophetic timeline. Like Criswell, Jeffress claims to speak for a much broader conservative evangelical constituency, in part by invoking biblical inerrancy. And like Criswell, Jeffress networks with diplomats and politicians in both the United States and Israel to advocate for closer relations.
His pulpit, more than any specific quality of Jeffress, bestows this role upon him. Jeffress’s invocation at the Jerusalem embassy program simply builds upon this immense historical legacy of relations between First Baptist Church and Palestinians and Israelis. In his three-minute prayer, which included equal parts political and religious invocations, Jeffress did not mention his church’s long involvement in the region.
Yet the long involvement of First Baptist Church in the region sheds light on a meaningful and virtually imperceptible force that has shaped U.S.-Israel relations, including Trump’s 2017 decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: the longer-term religious activities and political alliances between American Christians and Israelis that have created, in part, the context for this U.S. diplomacy.
Evangelical Christians form one of Trump’s core constituencies. And advocacy for Israel is now a central dimension of their faith — thanks in part to the work and beliefs of previous generations of First Baptist pastors. Their staunch support for pro-Israel policies, including relocating the embassy, contributed to Trump’s decision to make the move.
Given First Baptist Church’s legacy and this political dimension, it is quite natural that the occupant of its pulpit would be chosen to deliver an invocation at the American embassy — regardless of Jeffress’s controversial history. The intertwined rise of evangelical advocacy for Israel and GOP politics shaped this decision. Controversial statements are hardly a disqualifier to work with Trump, but his administration is far more attuned to the interests of Jeffress’s congregation than to the reputation of Jeffress himself, or for that matter, to his bad blood with Romney.