Faced with growing outrage about the separation of migrant children from their parents upon their entry into the United States, the governing Republicans took two dog-eared pages out of their party playbook: Blame their political opponents and hide behind the Bible.
The obvious example, of course, was the tone-deaf fury of President Trump’s insistence that the zero-tolerance policy in effect since early April was in fact the fault of the U.S. Democrats (out of power for the past 17 months) and that only members of the Democratic minorities in both Congress and the Senate had the ability to end this nightmare. Executive orders from the President wouldn’t do it, Trump repeatedly remarked – it was all at the Democrats’ feet. (Until, of course, he signed an executive order. But that’s another column entirely.)
From the midst of the tornado popped up the White House Munchkin, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, insisting that we all had to pipe down about this violation of human rights – blasted by Amnesty International only days later – because he had found just the right Scripture verse to defend the American border atrocities.
“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,” Sessions tut-tutted the White House press corps during a briefing on June 14.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders kept up this line of thinking, even though she admitted she hadn’t seen Sessions’ comments: “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible… It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”
Mercifully, it didn’t take long for Sessions and Sanders to discover that a whole lot of other people also read the Bible, with some speaking from the most non-traditional pulpits you might imagine.
Take Stephen Colbert, for example. The CBS Late Show host – a lifelong Catholic and veteran Sunday School teacher – devoted part of his June 14 show to dismantle Sessions’ Biblical argument. Colbert urged a further reading of Romans 13, specifically verses 9 and 10: “If there is any other commandment, all are summed up in this saying, namely: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
As Colbert’s remarks were going viral, a tidal wave of condemnation arose from church leaders and theologians alike.
Matthew Soerens, the director of church mobilization for the humanitarian wing of the National Association of Evangelicals, continued Colbert’s argument by suggesting that the White House might want to take a closer look at the chapter of Romans that immediately proceeds the verse Sessions quoted: “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (In an interview with The Washington Post, Soerens also sagely noted that the Apostle Paul wrote these verses and those quoted by Sessions and his ilk while Paul himself was imprisoned.)
Pope Francis tweeted that the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy notes that God “loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing, and you are to love those who are foreigners, for you were foreigners yourselves in Egypt.” Stateside, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described the government’s immigration policies as “immoral” and even suggested that Catholics who help the American Justice Department carry out the zero-tolerance family-separation dictum were violating their faith and should perhaps even be denied communion.
Even religious leaders and organizations close to the Trump inner circle are demanding action. Franklin Graham, son of recently-deceased evangelist Billy Graham and a ferocious Trump supporter, spoke out against the zero-tolerance policy.
He didn’t mention The Donald by name, mind you, but no such tip-toeing occurred on the part of 640 members of the United Methodist Church who signed a petition condemning Sessions for his use of Romans 13:1, calling it “the dissemination of false doctrine counter to Methodist teaching.” The same petition, signed by churchgoers and clergy alike, accuses the attorney-general of racial discrimination, immorality, and child abuse, and could lead to Sessions being formally charged within his own church’s laws and even expelled from the UMC.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to spend my time seeking punishment for those who hide behind the Bible to defend the indefensible. I’d rather devote my energy to ensuring that God’s love and grace reunite the families affected by this disastrous policy direction.
In both cases, as always, I simply pray that God’s will be done – and that His word, and those of His disciples and followers, is used for the greater good.