Despite past claims that he has “very little time” for watching television, President Donald Trump’s well-documented cable-news crapulence is a frequent catalyst for spur-of-the-moment tweetstorms—typically heavy in self-praise and heavier in schoolyard taunts.
On Friday evening, however, the president took a break from backdoor bragging to promote the important work being done by another American: a virulently anti-Catholic pastor who said something nice about him on television.
In a tweet, Trump lauded A Place Called Heaven: 10 Surprising Truths About Your Eternal Home, the newest book by evangelical megapastor Dr. Robert Jeffress, roughly one hour after Jeffress appeared on Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs Tonight to defend the president’s feud with Rep. Frederica Wilson.
“What President Trump said to this widow was absolutely appropriate,” said Jeffress, who serves as pastor of the 12,000-parishioner First Baptist Church in Dallas.
“It is the height of hypocrisy for this whacko rhinestone-cowboy congresswoman to accuse the president of insensitivity when, in fact, she’s the one who is exploiting the widow’s pain for her own partisan gain,” Jeffress said of Wilson, a Florida Democrat who has criticized Trump for telling the widow of a soldier killed in action that her late husband “knew what he signed up for.”
Later in the telecast, Jeffress declared that “the tide is turning” toward Trump on everything from the economy to the investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
The pastor’s unqualified praise was rewarded with the kind of blurb an author dreams of, with the president calling A Place Called Heaven “great” and Jeffress himself “a wonderful man”:
In the metric most cherished by the president—loyalty to the Trump White House—Jeffress is, indeed, wonderful. But among Catholics, Mormons, gays, Tim Tebow, and people who don’t think that access to abortion caused 9/11, Jeffress isn’t so universally beloved.
As Southern Baptist pastors go, Jeffress’ stances on homosexuality and transgender people are relatively mainstream—he once theorized that anal intercourse might make a person explode—but his views on other Christian faiths have engendered controversy even among religious conservatives. Most famously, Jeffress called Mormonism a “cult” after introducing Rick Perry at the Value Voters Summit in 2011, apparently in a bid to undercut evangelical support for Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
The pastor’s views on Roman Catholicism are equally extreme. In 2010, Jeffress declared that the Catholic Church was a “counterfeit” religion that had its origins in a Babylonian “pagan religion,” making Catholicism the “Whore of Babylon” foretold in the Book of Revelation.
“Isn’t that the genius of Satan?” Jeffress said on his radio show, Path to Victory. “If you want to counterfeit a dollar bill, you don’t do it with purple paper and red ink, you’re not going to fool anybody with that. But if you want to counterfeit money, what you do is make it look closely related to the real thing as possible.”
Contrary to olive branches extended between the two movements—evangelical Mike Huckabee told a conservative gathering in 2012 that “we’re all Catholics now,” while Vice President Mike Pence describes himself as an “evangelical Catholic”—the current detente between evangelical and Catholic faiths is relatively new. Similar to evangelical Christian devotion to the State of Israel as a means to an end, the uneasy truce is largely rooted in the partnership of expediency formed in the 1970s to champion “traditional family values” by waging war on abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Historically, the relationship between evangelical Protestant churches and Roman Catholics is much more fractious, with Baptist fundamentalists like Carey Pointer and Jerry Falwell once preaching that Catholics were heathen because of their extravagant and unintelligible liturgies, and many Catholics viewing evangelicals as snake-handlers and swindlers.
But such views have largely been banished from the evangelical movement—if only in public. Jeffress’ statements were extreme enough to prompt hunky Christian quarterback-turned-minor league baseball player Tim Tebow to cancel an appearance at his Dallas megachurch, derided in local media as the “Baptist Bellagio.”
To Trump, however, Jeffress’ comments on Mormonism and the Catholic Church apparently take a backseat to his comments on Trump. In January 2016, Jeffress encouraged evangelicals to be open-minded about the tycoon-turned-candidate, telling the Christian Post that “I don’t believe a Christian has to sell his soul to the devil to vote for Donald Trump.”
The White House did not return a request for comment on when the president read A Place Called Heaven, which markets itself as detailing what a person might expect when they arrive in the afterlife, or who had recommended the book. Trump once predicted that the only way he would get into Heaven would be if he won the presidency.