First Baptist Church billboard generative controversy over “Christian Nation” message (Image from Fox News coverage)
Criticism is free speech in action.
By Peter Montgomery / 06.22.2018
We noted on Wednesday that Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s earliest and most adoring Religious Right supporters, had been criticized by a Dallas columnist and the city’s Christian mayor for billboards put up by his First Baptist Church declaring “America is a Christian Nation.” After receiving complaints, the company that owned the billboards decided to take down the ads, while another company offered to replace the original two billboards with 20 touting the church’s message.
The story was irresistible to Fox News’ Todd Starnes, who has often promoted stories of alleged anti-Christian persecution. In his email newsletter on Thursday, Starnes highlighted a story he posted earlier in the week slamming the mayor for being offended by the church’s “patriotic billboard.”
In Starnes’ telling, the people who were unhappy with the divisive message on the billboard became “angry anti-Christian radicals.” And Jeffress displayed the Religious Right’s time-honored practice of equating criticism with persecution:
It should greatly concern people of any faith when those in the press or government proactively seek to defeat, censor or silence any religious message with which they disagree,” Jeffress said. “We don’t believe Dallas city officials have any right to directly or indirectly be involved in censoring a church’s message.
Jeffress and Starnes also blasted the Dallas Morning News, with Jeffress saying, “For the Dallas Morning News – who pose as champions of free speech, to try to censor our church’s message is gross hypocrisy.”
Jeffress’ dishonest slam on the newspaper is a perfect example of Religious Right double-speak on free speech. Columnist Robert Wilonsky thought that the message on the billboard, “America is a Christian Nation,” was divisive, and he said so in his column, writing that the billboard he saw while stuck in traffic felt like “someone telling me and everyone else who does not worship Jesus Christ that we do not belong here.” The newspaper didn’t try to “censor” First Baptist’s very public message; it simply criticized it. That’s free speech in practice.
There is no evidence that either the mayor or columnist who criticized the “Christian Nation” message as divisive had anything to do with pressuring the billboard company to take the signs down. In fact, as Starnes notes, the mayor has specifically stated that he didn’t.
Fox News played its part, interviewing Jeffress for a segment introduced by the host as “faith under fire.”
Originally published by Right Wing Watch, a project of People for the American Way, a program of Open Society Foundations, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.