At the height of an unprecedented coronavirus crisis and roughly seven months before he faces re-election, President Donald Trump spent the Easter holiday weekend deepening his connection with anti-LGBTQ religious leaders.
The president pivoted to the Christian right at a time when Americans were forced to stray from their annual traditions surrounding the coinciding mid-April holidays of Passover and Holy Week/ Easter. Many folks observed the holidays virtually or in socially-distant settings, such as drive-through movie theaters that were transformed into makeshift churches. Some pastors, however, defied the social distancing directives imposed across the nation and held Easter services in their congregations’ traditional homes.
Homophobic Bishop Harry Jackson, a Pentecostal senior pastor at the Hope Christian Church in Maryland and the presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, delivered a Good Friday blessing alongside the president and Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on April 10. Trump also said he was spending his Easter Sunday watching video streaming of the services led by Pastor Robert Jeffress, who is on his Evangelical Advisory Board and also has a history of homophobia. Both Jackson and Jeffress also share other mutual conservative beliefs, including opposition to abortion rights.
Jackson, who once proudly called for Christians to “steal back the rainbow” and said the LGBTQ community has a “radical homosexual agenda,” was welcomed by the president into the Oval Office. In a clear sign of solidarity between the conservative religious leader and the administration, Trump called Jackson a “highly respected gentleman,” and Jackson thanked Trump and Pence for ensuring that the government’s coronavirus relief package included funding for churches.
Jackson has repeatedly found himself embroiled in controversy over his comments on LGBTQ rights — particularly on the issue of marriage equality. In 2011, the far-right religious leader was on Sons of Libery Radio when he dismissed same-sex marriage as a “Satanic plot to destroy our seed” while referring to queer folks as “a minority group in a sense that has decided they are going to impose their will on the culture.”
In 2012, Jackson said LGBTQ people “want to impose their will on the culture and if you cannot reproduce you may try to recruit… Many Christians are sitting back and we aren’t speaking out, but the reality is just like during the times of Hitler we have people coming after one group after another group after another group…”
Jeffress, who is the senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Texas — a pivotal state in the 2020 presidential election, as it has long been a GOP stronghold but is slowly trending purple, though likely not fast enough for this November — holds considerable influence in American Southern Baptist circles. He is a Fox News contributor and his religious services are broadcast on thousands of TV and radio stations in the US and dozens of other countries.
Jeffress said in a 2008 sermon that “Gay is not OK” and went on to say that “What they do is filthy. It is so degrading that it is beyond description. And it is their filthy behavior that explains why they are so more prone to disease.”
But he also has blasted other faiths, including Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and Hinduism, and in 2010 created a “Naughty and Nice List” that specified whether a given business celebrated Christmas.
Then, less than a week before the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (whose religion he had earlier referred to as a “cult”), Jeffress embarked on a bizarre anti-Obama tirade — with a warning.
“I want you to hear me tonight,” Jeffress said. “I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all. One reason I know he’s not the Antichrist is the Antichrist is going to have much higher poll numbers when he comes. President Obama is not the Antichrist. But what I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.”
Trump is shining a warm spotlight on both anti-gay religious leaders at a time when marginalized groups, including communities of color and LGBTQ people, have suffered the brunt of the pandemic. Alarming racial disparities in coronavirus statistics have emerged in multiple regions, while LGBTQ seniors, homeless queer youth, and sex workers have experienced food insecurity and other immediate needs.
To top off his weekend courtship with the religious right, the thrice-married Trump signaled a possible divorce with science (the marriage has always, at best, been shaky) when he retweeted a message saying, “Time to #FireFauci.”
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