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Evangelicals Push Back On Sessions' Use Of Bible Passage To Defend Immigration Policy


Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried a new tack in defending the zero-tolerance crackdown that is resulting in separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. Sessions quoted the Bible.


JEFF SESSIONS: 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.

KELLY: Romans 13 is a well-known passage from the New Testament. Sessions' invocation of that passage is sparking criticism from many religious groups, including evangelical Christians, many of whom have otherwise been friendly to the president and his policies. NPR's Sarah McCammon has been following all of this, and she is with us now. Hey there, Sarah.


KELLY: So why is Sessions using the Bible to defend this immigration policy?

MCCAMMON: So he's doing this in response to growing criticism from a lot of religious groups of the Trump administration's policies on immigration, particularly this practice of separating children from parents at the border. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week said new rules denying asylum to victims of domestic violence and gang violence are immoral. And also this week, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions calling for more acceptance of refugees and immigrants and criticizing family separation. So Sessions is responding to that criticism, some of which is really coming from within the family here in a certain sense since white evangelicals especially have been largely so supportive of the Trump administration.

KELLY: And do we know why he has picked this particular passage to say?

MCCAMMON: Well, Romans is a really familiar book. The Bible - this speaks directly to his audience. Evangelicals have all heard many sermons from the Book of Romans. You know, it's a letter from the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome, and it lays out a lot of really important ideas in Christianity.

KELLY: The snag the Sessions appears to have hit, Sarah, is that this is not the first time this passage has been used to defend a controversial policy. Tell us a little bit more about the history of how Romans 13 has been applied.

MCCAMMON: Right. I mean, this passage in particular - obviously quoting the Bible in a public forum raises separation of church and state questions for some people. But this one in particular - it's about respecting the law, and it's been used to justify government actions that people of good faith now regard as atrocities, most specifically slavery. It was used to justify the Fugitive Slave Act, for example, back before the Civil War. That's something I've seen historians and journalists point out as well as evangelical leaders from, you know, both black and white churches concerned about this.

And I'm also seeing a lot of people pointing out that the Bible has a lot to say about welcoming refugees and immigrants. And even that passage in particular, Romans 13 - if you read down just a little bit, it talks about obeying the law, but it goes on to say that the law is summed up in this, in love your neighbor as yourself. So this whole business of using the bible to support a political point of view is always a little fraught because the Bible is a complex book, and people have been disagreeing about what it really means for as long as it's been around.

KELLY: Right. You can find a line in the Bible to support just about any argument you want to make. When I said that the evangelical community has been critical of Sessions for using this particular passage to support this particular immigration policy, what exactly are you hearing from evangelical circles?

MCCAMMON: A lot of concern and some from people who are traditionally friendly to Trump or at least very reliably conservative. I've seen comments on Twitter, for instance, from Mindy Belz of WORLD magazine, multiple Southern Baptist leaders, influential writers and speakers like Beth Moore. Kelly Rosati, who's a former vice president at Focus on the Family, really conservative group and an anti-abortion activist, said it's a particular kind of grotesque to use scripture to justify policy to intentionally inflict trauma on children. Tony Suarez, a Latino pastor who's been among Trump's informal advisers, tweeted, God have mercy on those who seem so nonchalant to the plight of children being separated from their parents.

So lots of concern, and even, you know, some evangelicals I've talked to privately defend the administration. But they say at minimum that Sessions' use of scripture in this way was was not wise and was not productive.

KELLY: So is it too soon to ask, Sarah, what the political fallout might be both for Jeff Sessions and for President Trump himself?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, that's a big question. There are a few things I'm watching for here. What does this mean for Trump's already embattled relationship with Jeff Sessions. And also, how far does this push evangelicals? Is this sort of a one-off, or does this open up a bigger fissure that could get even larger going forward?

KELLY: NPR's Sarah McCammon, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.