On Thursday, the Trump administration took extraordinary steps to defend its unpopular policy of splitting up migrant families detained at the US border.
They resorted to citing scripture. Poorly.
First there was Jeff Sessions, in a speech delivered to civic groups in Fort Wayne. Later, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about Sessions’ remarks, she gave a more general defense, saying “It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”
It’s unusual to say the least that a high-ranking member of the federal government would offer a religious defense of public policy. Ordinarily, they’d shrug, claim to defer to religious leaders, and move on. But this being the Trump administration, nothing is ever ordinary. It’s just Thursday.
Sessions apparently felt the need to speak to religious critics because the administration’s policies have been getting creamed, across the spectrum. You wouldn’t expect liberal groups to like Trump’s approach, but even conservatives hate it. The same day Mike Pence showed up to address the Southern Baptist Convention, their annual meeting passed a resolution calling on the administration to take a more humane approach. So did at least one Catholic bishop. So did Franklin Graham, who’s been as ridiculously in-the-bag for Trump as his old man was for Nixon.
No doubt sensing that the administration’s religious allies were slipping away on this issue, Sessions cited Romans 13:1:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
“Obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” said Sessions. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
If this passage seems familiar, it might be that you learned it in American history: it was one of slave owners’ go-to scriptures in defense of their own authority. (“Am I surprised that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions went right to [this scripture]?” quipped Charlie Pierce. “No.”)
Having laid out the facts of the matter, let us now move into the sermon portion of the proceedings.
As if the unsavory history of the use of Paul’s writing wasn’t enough to discredit Sessions’ argument, his complete misinterpretation of it should have been. The setting of the passage is an extended argument about how the churches in Rome ought to get along with one another and with civil authorities who were implacably hostile to their cause. Be good to one another, Paul argues, because you’ll need the strength of a good community. As for the autorities:
Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Meaning, even if Rome is wildly oppressive, you still have to meet your ordinary civil obligations. “Don’t follow leaders, but watch your parking meters,” to paraphrase Dylan. This is as much about keeping out of unnecessary trouble as it is proper subjugation without questioning authority.
But notice the formula here: Christians should meet those obligations to whom they are due. There’s nothing to suggest that Christians should obey the law uncritically, or that they should write the government a blank check. Quite the opposite, in fact:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
And it is pretty damn hard to argue that the administration’s policy on migrant families treats the neighbor as oneself, much less loving them. Or maybe breast-feeding mothers don’t count as neighbors? Maybe I’ve misunderstood that part of scripture.
It’s striking—and again extraordinary—how little moral agency Sessions is willing to assert in his remarks.
- It’s Eric Holder’s fault.
- The Democrats should have taken the president’s DACA deal (that he blew up at the last minute).
- I can’t interpret the law to accept victims of domestic violence or gang violence.
- The US shouldn’t have to address the poverty and violence it helped create in Central America.
- If migrants choose to die in the desert, that’s on them.
Again and again, Sessions deflects responsibility, interpreting conscious decisions made by him among many others over the years, to be immutable facts, just the way things have to be.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Sessions isn’t “simply enforcing the law,” as he likes to say. Family separation is a Trump administration policy; it’s their interpretation of how to implement the law. It is not the law itself.
To stick with the moral argument, though, Jesus is absolutely, 100%, crystal freaking clear that the law is made for humanity, not humanity for the law. (In this he is very Jewish.) When Jesus is challenged for healing on the sabbath, he asks:
Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.
If a law produces inhumane results—say, for example, that it results in the deaths of thousands in deserts or in their home nations, or the forcible separation and jailing of entire families—Christians can and should act to change that law. It is not enough, as Mr. Sessions does, to mewl and puke and whine about “enforcing the law on the books” or “if only people would follow the law.”
In short, Jeff Sessions is a gutless coward, without the courage of his professed religious beliefs; without even a rudimentary moral compass beyond White America Good. Brown America Bad.
That’s really what all of his attempts at moral justification boil down to: White America makes the rules, I get paid to enforce those rules, so that’s what I’m going to do. Suck it, breastfeeding babies and their mothers.
It is pure “might makes right,” and it is absolutely, completely, utterly morally bankrupt and contrary to the spirit of the gospels and Paul’s message to the Romans—at least as I understand them.
Where would Christianity be if the moral of the Good Samaritan story was that the Samaritan decided to keep on walking, because there were rules to be followed? The grace of God and the mercy of Jesus are transgressive (citation: read the damn Bible), and they give not one single whit about human laws. They ought not be cited in defense of hard-heartedness, and anyone who does so ought not be surprised when their co-religionists call them on it.