Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of a Biblical passage to justify the administration’s policy of taking children from their parents at the border has brought objections from many Christians to what they call a misuse of Scripture.
“I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13,” Sessions said Thursday in Indiana, “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
The Trump administration’s policy of putting migrants in federal custody automatically requires them to be separated from children. In some cases, families who cross seeking asylum also are separated.
“Any government that uses Romans 13 to silence ethical objections has already realized it does not stand on Scriptural or moral high grounds,” said Wes Faulk, a Southern Baptist pastor from Vidalia, La. “I really think what Sessions said is more pandering and trying to use the Bible to influence Christians than using the Bible to guide his own decision.”
The verse itself has a checkered history of use in American politics. Romans 13 has been used to justify both slavery and Nazism. Both the patriots in the American Revolution and those still loyal to the king used it for their cause.
“The Bible isn’t supposed to be a weapon,” said Scott Mayer, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. “It’s ultimately about God’s love.”
Amy Joy Ickes, a nondenominational Christian Bible teacher living in San Antonio, said Sessions broke the first rule of Bible study: He took a verse out of its context.
“You can literally make the Bible say anything you want it to say by pulling out the right verses,” she said. “That’s the difficult part of the Bible but also, from Satan’s side of it, the beauty of the Bible.”
Romans 13, she said, comes after a chapter in which the Apostle Paul tells Christians how to live as Christians. He tells of the gifts Christians have been given and how to build up the church and the body of Christ, Ickes said, and how to live with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Then in Romans 13, she said, Paul discusses how to live in a city under the rule of government. That rule of government comes second to God’s law. The verse Sessions cited instructs people to obey the ruler God put over them (and theological debates occur over whether God has chosen rulers or whether he allows rulers in office).
“Really, Paul’s point is: ‘OK, wherever you’re living, you’re there for a reason,” Ickes said. “And as followers of Christ, you set the examples in how you obey the law and uphold the law.”
But God’s law, Ickes said, is paramount. “And so the question we ask is: What is God’s law?” she said. “All the way through the Bible, God’s law is justice for the oppressed.”
While 81 percent of self-identified white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, according to Pew Research, the administration’s policy of separating children from their families and Sessions' biblical citation has drawn the ire of some conservative evangelicals. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also called the policy “biblical.”
“Romans 13 is not a chapter God dropped out of the sky to say, ‘Here’s how Republicans should support Donald Trump,’ ” said Eric Costanzo, the pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa. His church has worked with immigrants and refugees.
Costanzo said he speaks often to his church about how it takes effort to read the Bible in its entirety rather than cherry-picking verses.
“I think above any law of people is the law: Love your neighbor as yourself,” he said.
One politically conservative Southern Baptist pastor has guardianship papers filled out and ready to file for two girls in case their parents are deported. The pastor, who requested anonymity for the girls’ protection, ministers to others in his community whose immigration statuses he knows are in question.
“How can a Christian be for separating families?” he asked. That said, he believes in strong borders and a rule of law — if he could set policy, families would be kept together and be sent back to their country of origin. And he said he’s deeply bothered by Sessions' comments because they “reduced the value of Scripture.”
“I’m not swayed because someone can pick up a leather-bound book with onion-leaf paper,” he said.
Major religious leaders have been quick to condemn the Trump administration's border policy.
A Quaker lobby released a statement denouncing Sessions’ use of the Bible for what it dubbed “immoral teachings.” A dozen interfaith leaders spanning Islam, Judaism and leaders of multiple Christian denominations signed a petition on June 7 denouncing the separation of families at the border. More than 2,500 women of faith released a statement the day before demanding the administration stop taking children away from their parents.
The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society — the church’s social justice and public policy agency — posted on Twitter a photo of a church sign with a play on a Bible quote : “‘I was a stranger and you ripped my child from me.’ Wait a second …”
“Some Christians tend to read America into the Bible,” said Kelly Ladd Bishop, a nondenominational Christian writer and former pastor from Boston. “The Bible is a book about the politics of God’s kingdom, and anytime it’s used to further an agenda other than the agenda of Kingdom politics I think that’s problematic.”
This story was originally published June 15, 2018 6:00 PM.