Democrats are not impressed. Over the weekend, Democratic presidential candidates repeatedly blamed Trump for “savagely fraying the bonds of our nation by speaking consistently words of hatred,” as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey put it on CNN. This kind of behavior is “shameful,” Jeffress said. “By politicizing this tragedy, some Democrats are trivializing this tragedy.”
Another Dallas-area pastor and Trump adviser, Jack Graham, agreed. “I’m not going to blame rhetoric on the evil heart of some terrorist. Who knows what was going on in the mind of this shooter,” he told me. “To me, this is not the time … to go running out there and condemning political leaders, whether it’s the president or anyone else, or blaming rhetoric, or blaming guns.”
Samuel Rodriguez, an evangelical pastor who serves as the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has also been one of Trump’s evangelical advisers. But he told me that it is impossible to deny that anti-immigrant rhetoric stokes bigotry. “I do believe words matter,” he said. “When we paint the immigrant community with one broad stroke, we are, in essence, feeding the poisonous venom already injected in the hearts and minds of individuals who truly do believe there is a Hispanic invasion.” He called on all elected officials to disavow this kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric. But he also said he hopes his white, Christian brothers and sisters will explicitly defend immigrants in this moment. “I would like to see every white evangelical pastor in America stand up on their pulpit and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, immigrants are not a burden. Immigrants are a blessing,’” he said.
To a certain extent, the divergence between pastors like Morriss and those like Jeffress and Graham is a matter of difference over the way they think about the nature of evil: Conservative evangelicals are much more likely to point to individual sin and the persistence of evil in a fallen world than progressives, who are more inclined to explain the world in terms of systems of power. Indeed, this partially accounts for the fighting over thoughts and prayers, a phrase that seems meaningless and trite to some, but that holds real power for a pastor like Graham. “I believe that this is a spiritual matter, and that there is a devil, and evil is real,” he said. “Wicked Satan is a real force and power on our Earth.”
But this divide also has important implications for how Christians think about white supremacy, and what Christians should do in the face of violence that seems to have been motivated by racist ideology. Graham and Jeffress both condemned white supremacy. “White supremacy and all the rest is evil and wicked and should be condemned, without hesitation,” Graham told me. Jeffress added that it’s important for churches to acknowledge the mistakes they have made in the past; his congregation in Dallas, for example, was long segregated. Shootings like this offer “a chance to denounce racism in every form to our people, and to Christians,” Jeffress said. “Racism has no place in our church. If you hate people according to their skin color, you’re not welcome in First Baptist Church in Dallas.”