Column: Sessions Thumps, Clergy Jumps

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The executive branch of the federal government of the United States has gone biblical.

On June 14, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible while responding to criticism of his April 6 announcement of a “zero-tolerance policy” for “illegal entry into the United States by an alien” and his May 7 statements that the Department of Justice would work with the Department of Homeland Security to take children away from anyone “smuggling” them into the country.

The Attorney General’s comments were made one day after Catholic Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston released a public statement denouncing Sessions’ decisions on family separation. After drawing connections between giving aid to asylum seekers, preserving the right to life, and protecting female victims of domestic violence, Cardinal DiNardo addressed the issue of young children:

Additionally, I join Bishop Joe Vásquez, Chairman of USCCB’s [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops] Committee on Migration, in condemning the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border as an implementation of the Administration’s zero tolerance policy. Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.

During his June 14 speech defending Trump administration policies on immigration, the grim visage of Sessions broke into a wide grin as he seemed to respond to DiNardo’s comments by providing religious justification for taking away children from parents who have illegally crossed the southern border of the United States:

And I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing, and it protects the weak. It protects the lawful.

Saint Paul Outside the Walls [Wikimedia Commons]

Later on the same day, Jim Acosta of CNN mentioned Sessions’ comments and asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?”

Despite stating that she was “not aware of the Attorney General’s comments or what he would be referencing,” Sanders appeared to read from a prepared statement on her lectern as she responded, “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”

Christian Leaders Respond

The next day, Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe of the United Methodist Church issued a statement titled “A shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel” that addressed the statements of “our fellow United Methodist, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

The crux of the statement is the assertion that “[t]o argue that these policies are consistent with Christian teaching is unsound, a flawed interpretation, and a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel.”

Other Christian leaders made similar comments. The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s website features a post with the impressively lengthy title “COB Statement RE: Condemning Immigrant Family Separation; AME Church condemns use of scripture by Attorney General Sessions to separate immigrant families; From Lies to Liberation: the of [sic] Scripture to Justify Injustice.”

The bishops come out swinging:

We have heard much about the political cult of Mr. Donald Trump over the past few days. Students of cults understand that they abuse and misuse the truth of religious documents to control people and to bend their will. This practice of using “proof text” – scriptural text out of context to achieve some wicked end – is as ancient as the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the Wilderness (Luke 4).

Like Henry-Crowe, the AME bishops assert that the Bible cannot properly be used to justify what they themselves stand against: “The Bible does not justify discrimination masked as racism, sexism, economic inequality, oppression or the abuse of children.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Catholic Archbishop of New York, made similar statements during a television interview:

I don’t think we should obey a law that goes against what God intends that you would take a baby, a child, from his or her mom. I mean, that’s just unjust. That’s unbiblical. That’s un-American. There could be no Bible passage that would justify that.

Dolan also made a further remark on the relationship of the Bible and the federal government: “God’s law trumps man’s law, alright?”

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Gustav Doré (1866) [Public Domain]

A few days later, this assertion of theocracy over democracy was amplified by another American Catholic who often speaks on political issues, the Jesuit priest Reverend James Martin. Speaking with Newsweek writers about Sessions, he said, “Basically what he’s doing is cherry-picking. He’s taking a verse out of context. All of Paul is about how God’s law supersedes human law.”

Martin also asserted that Session’s “idea that the law is kind of an idol is ridiculous. God’s law supersedes all of that. We see I think the dangers of putting law in front of morality.”

Echoing the statements of the Methodist clergy, Martin told Newsweek that

Romans 13 has been used to justify everything from slavery to regulations in Nazi Germany. So again we see the danger of taking a Bible verse out of context and using it as a kind of weapon to sort of beat people into submission to the law. That is not what Saint Paul is about. That’s certainly not what Jesus is about.

The Jesuit concluded with a sentiment that appeared in many of the critical responses to Sessions use of the Bible:

I would say to Attorney General Sessions, with all respect, if you’re going to read that one verse from Romans, you should read the whole New Testament and see if you come out with a different understanding of how we’re supposed to treat our brothers and sisters on the border.

I would say to Martin and the others, with all respect, you’re following Sessions down the rabbit hole.

“When you call my name, I salivate like a Pavlov dog”

Kudos to all who spoke out against the Trump administration policy of separating children from parents at the border. We need more people of good conscience from all religions and of no religion to resist the downward spiral of jingoistic nationalism, racialist rhetoric, and crass cash-grabbing that the current administration is wallowing in.

However, these perhaps well-meaning clerics have stepped into a lane that has been quite busy since Donald Trump first declared his candidacy for president three years ago last Saturday.

Over these past thirty-six months, public figures in religion, media, and academia have allowed the Trump entourage to set the terms of the public discussion. Trump or one of his minions makes a confrontational statement or takes a belligerent action, and the Pavlovian reaction floods the airwaves and the internet.

A master of 1980s-style self-marketing, Trump manipulated the media into providing him with free advertising during the campaign. It seemed that every hour of news on the supposedly liberal National Public Radio would begin with a clip of whatever kooky thing the Republican candidate had said that day. Trump would assert that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, and the pundits would dutifully discuss what percentage of Mexican immigrants can legitimately be considered criminals and rapists. The media agenda was set by its supposed subject.

This approach to dealing with Trump’s declarations and actions by giving them unfettered attention has continued unabated since he was elected. He rings the bell, and everyone drools.

Of course, the media should cover the president and his administration. Religious leaders should speak out when they believe the tenets of their faith are being used and abused by officials elected and appointed.

The big issue is that so many so often enter into the arena built by the Trumpists rather than resisting the guiding hand of the administration as it pushes them where it will. Instead of focusing on ongoing improper and criminal actions taken by the administration and its circle, so many allow themselves to be buffeted about by the endless manufactured outrages designed daily by Trump advisor Stephen Miller and the rest of the gang.

The specific problem here is that much of the response to Sessions’ citation of the Bible to assert that “God has ordained the government for his purposes” makes no bones about the fact that the Attorney General of the United States is claiming divine mandate for administration policies.

King Charles I receives his crown from above (Anonymous, c. 1700) [Public Domain]

There is a particularly American comfort with this hoary old idea – a comfort that has long been seen as bizarre by leaders of other nations.

In 2007, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair explained why he only spoke publicly about his Christian beliefs after he had left public office:

Well it’s difficult if you talk about religious faith in our political system. I mean if you are in the American political system or others then you can talk about religious faith and people say yes that’s fair enough and it is something they respond to quite naturally.

You talk about it in our system and frankly people do think you’re a nutter. I mean they sort of, you know you maybe go off and sit in the corner and you know commune with, with the man upstairs and then come back and say right I’ve been told the answer and that’s it.

A USA Today/Gallup poll the same year underscored Blair’s point, showing that being an atheist was the single largest disqualifier for American presidential candidates. 53% of respondents stated that they would not vote for an atheist, a number that was up a full 10% from responses to the same question seventy years earlier.

The poll showed that anti-atheism was by far the strongest prejudice among American voters in presidential elections at the time. By comparison, only 5% said they would not vote for an African-American, 7% were anti-Jewish, and 11% opposed a woman running for the office.

How many Americans agree with Sessions’ assertion of divine mandate? The Christian leaders discussed above provided no pushback against this claim and instead focused narrowly on the issue of family separation and whether or not the Bible could correctly be cited to support it.

By doing so, they allowed Sessions to set the terms of the discussion. The question being discussed was not, should federal government officials be citing the Bible to justify policy decisions? Instead, the common sentiment was, God’s law is above federal law, and the Bible can only be read in a way that supports our side of the public policy debate.

Muddy Waters

It could be claimed that these Christian clergy are simply promoting their faith as any religious leader would do. I call shenanigans on that idea.

As a practicing Ásatrú clergyperson, I would be horrified if an Attorney General stood up and publicly cited the Old Norse Odin poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”) to justify the righteous Odinic power of the federal government.

A very regal Odin by Johannes Wiedewelt (1780) [Public Domain]

Anyone can discuss interpretations of ancient texts, whether they are clergy, practitioners, or atheists. Anyone can find a passage in one of these texts that can be read in a way that seems to justify their political beliefs, left, right, or center. This has been done from time immemorial. To argue that there is only one, true, and correct reading of a Biblical passage is to embrace fundamentalism.

What I believe should be left in the past is the claim by any official of a democratically elected government in these United States that their authority rests not with the will of the people but instead with the will of some particular deity.

Whatever Jeff Sessions may or not believe in his heart is his business and is an internal issue within his own faith community. Once he openly declares that the administration of which he is a part is acting with the force of divine will, it becomes a public issue. It is an assault on the foundations of our secular democracy, and it must be opposed.

The fact that so many Christian leaders openly and publicly responded to Sessions by declaring “God’s law trumps man’s law” is deeply problematic, as is the fact that the media featured their declarations without challenge. Would they have been so obliging if an Odinist declared, Odin’s law trumps man’s law, or if a jihadist declared, Allah’s law trumps man’s law?

The waters of public discourse have been willfully muddied by the Trump cohort, as evidenced by the gleeful grin with which Sessions made his biblical pronouncement and the belligerence with which Sanders gave her supposedly non-prepared reaction. When religious leaders respond by agreeing in spirit with the idea that their deity should determine the actions of government officials, they do nothing to clear the waters.