Great changes are afoot in the Kingdom of Man, but how now arrangethèd is the furniture in the House of the Lord? On Sunday morning, attendees of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, the domain of pastor Robert Jeffress, were treated to an excellent opportunity to take stock of the changing dynamics of our moral universe. Jeffress took time out of his service to interview Fox News’ Sean Hannity about the release of a new movie, Let There Be Light, which Hannity has executive produced.
Jeffress and Hannity occupy curious places in American life in 2017. Jeffress has become the more or less official evangelical apologist for Donald Trump, a serial liar, philanderer and abuser of women who once described communion as the process of getting “my little wine, and my little cracker.” Jeffress recently declared a fatwa of sorts on behalf of the Leader, writing that “in the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” He is the pope to Trump’s Holy Roman Emperor.
His church, like other megachurches of its type, is a television set with an unusually large studio audience, a fact that Hannity’s appearance underlined. Each service takes the familiar and friendly shape of an American talk show — a monologue, a guest, some light entertainment, strategically placed cameras, audience applause. The two men sat facing each other onstage, in front of a countdown clock that would mark the end of Hannity’s “segment.”
“How y’all doing?” Hannity asked, by way of introduction. “I’m a talk show host. I’m not used to being interviewed.” Hannity, who was born in and has lived most of his life in New York City, is a chameleon, the lone survivor of the incarnation of Fox News that had so much influence during the Bush administration. He’s outlasted Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and everybody else, in part because of his (as-yet?) lack of sexual harassment allegations, but also because of his ability to reinvent himself.
After 9/11, Hannity became a down-home advocate for flyover country, a hater of the Dixie Chicks and friend of Charlie Daniels. His radio show’s theme music was an upbeat Martina McBride hit, “Independence Day.” It sounded patriotic, and presumably few of his listeners would go on to learn that the protagonist of the song was a domestic abuse victim who murders her bastard husband, which is all you need to know about the early 2000s. He’s been equally enthusiastic about Bush and Romney and Trump. These days, he’s InfoWars adjacent, a lover of Julian Assange and Kim Dotcom and a great source of pain to the family of murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich.
He’s also, Jeffress told the crowd, an “unapologetic follower of Jesus Christ.” Hannity returned the favor. “He’s come on our program when other pastors won’t stand up,” he told the flock. “If we don’t have the churches and the pastors leading us we’re gonna be in big trouble.” Jeffress in turn thanked Hannity for having him on his show so many times.
Hannity’s Christianity is not incidental to the visit — he’s in Dallas because he’s hawking his new movie, which stars Kevin Sorbo, ex-Hercules, as Dr. Sol Harkens, a shark-faced, militantly atheist professor and author of a book called Aborting God. In 2014, another movie in which Kevin Sorbo played a militant atheist professor who gets what’s coming to him, God’s Not Dead, grossed more than $62 million on a $2 million budget, leading to an ongoing mini-boomlet of Christian movies.
Jeffress invites Hannity to share his faith story. “I was raised Roman Catholic,” Hannity says, almost apologetically. “It was a must.” (Jeffress has previously described Catholicism as a pagan cult created by Satan.) Hannity grew up poor in the New York of the 1970s. All four of his grandparents were Irish immigrants, and he’s repeatedly talked about being beaten with a strap and punched by his father. He tells the crowd he was “an incorrigible child,” that his parents sent him to work early, that in high school he would bartend almost till dawn, that he started drinking at a very young age, that his parents made him go to seminary with the hope that he would become a priest, and that he flunked out.
“The one thing the Catholic church gave me is guilt,” Hannity tells the audience. The guilt made him eventually reconfigure his life. “I’m more sort-of-born-again Christian, is how I view myself now.” He felt God’s presence when the old parts of him came out. “I know when I’m a jerk when I’m angry, I know when I’m wrong because God in my heart tells me I’m wrong.”
None of it seems insincere, but it’s worth wondering if Hannity himself has misunderstood the sense of meaning he feels. He long ago became an avatar for people’s frustrations and grievances, a channeler of them, in the wholesome part of the country, away from the complicated emotional landscape of the New York of his youth. The spiritual and the political and worldly entertainment are inseparable within Hannity, and within Jeffress as well, because they’re demanded in equal measure by the audiences that they feed. Hannity’s biggest applause line of the morning, by far, comes when he tosses off the comment, “I don’t like liberals,” and the warm reception it receives seems to throw even him.
But in the end it comes back to show business. Jeffress points to the countdown clock, which is ticking down. Hannity jokes: “Enough of Hannity, get him off the stage.” Stage?
With the small-talk section of Hannity’s guest spot out of the way, Jeffress allows Hannity to finish his appearance with the traditional plug. “If you don’t live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or D.C.,” Hannity says, you ought to know that “those cities have real contempt for those of us that are conservative or Christian.” Hannity, of course, lives in a wealthy Long Island suburb that is also home to Rupert Murdoch, the person who built the greatest conservative media outlet in the history of the country in midtown Manhattan, headlined by talent from New York, Boston and California. This movie isn’t for the coastals, he says, for the people happy with Hollywood’s pablum. It’s for the real people.
Jeffress has a product, too: a new book, A Place Called Heaven: 10 Surprising Truths about Your Eternal Home, the latest in a list of at least 23 books. Recently, Trump himself promoted the book on his presidential Twitter feed. The three form a perfect triangle of self-promotion — substanceless and slick. Each has something to sell you, and a chorus of the powerful to agree with them that you must buy in. What d’you think Christ would have sounded like with a book deal?
Last year, when Jeffress first became a prime surrogate for Trump, he had another book to promote, Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning. The theme of the many talks he gave that year in support of the book was “The New Moral Disorder,” as he explained in one podcast, a month before the election. “How did we get so far off track? We keep hearing over and over again that our culture is evolving. That we’re getting better and better as a civilization. But the evidence suggests the contrary. We are devolving.”
Americans were experiencing a profound level of “moral and spiritual deterioration,” exacerbated by our raw materialism, that would ultimately lead to the culture’s and the country’s demise, he promises in the podcast. Then Pastor Jeffress immediately pivots to another tout — he’s selling tickets for an upcoming guided tour of the Holy Land. Something to think about.