The Historical Precedent of Trotting Out the Bible to Justify Oppression

To defend the Trump administration’s practice of criminally prosecuting everyone who crosses our southern border, leading to the separation of children from their parents, Attorney General Jeff Sessions trotted out a Bible verse.

“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 said during a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

If you have a hard time imagining how a policy of separating children from their parents can be described as “a good and moral thing” that protects the weak, you probably have a conscience. But here’s how it is justified in the mind of someone like Sessions:

“In 2013, fewer than 15,000 family units were apprehended crossing our border illegally between ports of entry in dangerous areas of the country,” he said. “Five years later, it was more than 75,000, a five-fold increase in five years. It didn’t even have to be their child that was brought, it could be anyone. You can imagine that this created a lot of danger.”

What he is suggesting is that adult migrants bring children with them in order to avoid detention, which he goes on to suggest has “created a lot of danger.” He ignores the fact that there was a time when undocumented immigrants were made up primarily of Mexicans coming to the United States for seasonal work and now things have shifted towards Central American women and children feeling violence. There are very good reasons why we’re now seeing an influx of family units.

But let’s get back to the use of the verse in Romans 13. Given what has happened this week, it is interesting to note that the most recent use of that passage came during the time that Trump was threatening “fire and fury” against North Korea.

Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers who preached the morning of his inauguration, has released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil,” Jeffress said. “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”…

The biblical passage Romans 13 gives the government authority to deal with evildoers, Jeffress said. “That gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un,” he said.

I can’t find an updated statement from Jeffress now that Trump has done a complete reversal and is talking about how the North Korean dictator is such a good strong leader.

In terms of how Sessions used Romans 13, there are a couple of very ugly precedents for that.

“There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.”

The other, Fea said, “is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong. I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

Yoni Applebaum explained that the use of Romans 13 to justify slavery has another thing in common with the administration’s current policy.

Abolitionists of the era argued that slavery was unconscionably cruel; in particular, they pointed to the forcible separation of families as running counter to God’s law. Apologists for slavery recognized the strength of the claim…In response, defenders of slavery insisted on the duty to abide by the law—including the Fugitive Slave Act. They cited verses which stressed this duty, Romans 13:1 prominent among them.

Persisting beyond the end of the Civil War was the policy of separating Native American children from their parents and putting them in boarding schools. I haven’t seen an example of anyone using Romans 13 to justify that practice, but the schools were run by Christian missionaries who were asked to “civilize” and “Christianize” the children.

I’m also reminded of the letter Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail. It was in response to criticism he had received from white clergymen over the activities of nonviolent resistance. We don’t know if they actually quoted the verse from Romans 13, but it is clear that they were critical of the fact that laws were being broken, because a justification for doing so made up a large portion of what King wrote. He said that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Martin Luther King is on much firmer theological ground than Jeff Sessions. It is interesting to note that the Apostle Paul, who wrote the book of Romans, spent a fair amount of time in jail—which suggests that he occasionally disobeyed unjust laws. Sessions also seemed to ignore that Paul went on in that chapter of Romans to say that, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” It seems to me that a pretty good definition of “love” would be, as MLK wrote, anything that uplifts the human personality. That is the essence of what is recorded in the Gospels about the message of Jesus, who was constantly questioned by the Pharisees because he didn’t adhere to their legalistic interpretation of scripture.

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40

By quoting the Bible to justify the disgusting practice of separating children from their parents, AG Sessions aligns himself with a whole host of deplorably racist practices throughout this country’s history. For those who have actually paid attention to what the Bible says, he also undermines the central message of the gospel. There is nothing even remotely moral about what he’s doing.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.