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Ever since Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ claim last week that separating children from their parents was a biblical gesture, citing Romans 13, theologians have been among the many who have rightfully taken Sessions’ biblical understanding to task. This effort to prove that Sessions’ use of Romans 13 is theologically incorrect, however, must be matched by an effort to understand how a particular Christian worldview is shaping this administration.
So which Christian worldview made Sessions, or perhaps Vice President Pence, think that this verse would justify the administration’s actions? The answer to this question can be found by looking at the conservative Christianity to which Pence, Betsy DeVos, and other senior members of the administration subscribe, and which influences the Ralph Drollinger-led White House Bible study (Capitol Ministries) that Sessions attended one day prior to his announcement. The worldview behind the Romans 13 controversy is the ideology of Reconstructionist Christianity as interpreted by Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian media empire founded by James Dobson.
Ralph Drollinger’s wife Danielle worked for Focus in the early 1990s and Dobson frequently promoted the couple’s new venture after its founding in 1996. The continued connection between the two groups is evident in Capitol Ministries’ support of corporal punishment as well as in the understanding of the relationship between the people and the government that Sessions learned in its lesson.
Focus made its views on what constitutes a righteous government clear in the ninth lesson of The Truth Project (2006), a 13-week-long video seminar designed by Focus to show how the “Truth” is revealed in all spheres of life through “God’s triune stamp.” The host of that seminar, Del Tackitt, instructed viewers that according to a “Christian worldview” God presented himself to the people in the New Testament in three equally important persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who all had specific and clearly defined roles: God, the father, as the authority; Jesus as the son who submits himself to God; and the Holy Spirit as the manifestation of God’s grace.
Each week’s video explored how this relationship of authority, submission and manifestation could be found throughout a truly Christian society in the home, the school, the workplace, and in government. In describing a godly government, Tackitt explained:
Just as the Son is subject to the Father, the wife to the husband, and the elders of the church to the headship of Christ, so the authority of the state, within the economy of the divine design for the political sphere, is subject to and dependent upon the authority of God Himself. Governors and magistrates hold their power purely as delegates and representatives of the King of all kings. They are appointed and armed with the sword in order that they might 1) punish evil and 2) condone good.
Here, Tackitt was pushing further on the well-established conservative Christian view that modern government has outgrown its natural boundaries by usurping both the family’s role as educators and caregivers, and the church’s role as social service agency. To this concern about scope, Focus added a moral and, for many of its viewers, a biblical component to the proper role of government as Tackitt’s quote articulates. This articulation reaches back to the conservative Christian view of the seminal relationship that God had with his own son and wants with us now.
This view of government did not spring into existence with this administration or with the Truth Project—Focus users have been learning it for decades. In 1998, Tom Minnery, a former vice president of Focus translated the idea of “theonomy” (a term coined in 1973 by R. J. Rushdooney, the founder of Reconstructionist Christianity), by which all areas of American life are brought under God’s law; particularly the government, which should have as limited a role as possible, giving freedom to its citizens to carry out God’s social mandates.
Minnery outlines theonomy in Focus’s flagship magazine in 1998, explaining that “God has ordained three basic institutions—the church, the family, and the government—for the benefit of all mankind… The government exists to maintain cultural equilibrium and to provide a social order.”
When the government moves beyond its role of maintaining law and order, Tackitt asserts that Christians should resist, as they did with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. However, when government is fulfilling its divine and limited mission, people and agencies who ignore or resist its laws and regulations are opposing God’s will and pose a threat to social order—be they feminists, LGBTQ activists, or, in the case of Sessions’ pronouncements asserting a law and order rationale for the actions of his agency, against undocumented border-crossing parents and their children.
Shifting our attention from an individual Bible verse or singular element in the culture wars that is on trial in the public sphere to the wider worldview that Sessions’ comment reveals allows us to see the administration’s motivations more clearly—and, perhaps, to predict its next move.