The Trump administration’s decision to separate hundreds of children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border has brought mounting horror across the United States. Among the objectors are an increasingly vocal coalition of conservative religious leaders, including some who have generally been friendly to Trump. On Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for immigration reform that maintains “the priority of family unity.” The next day, American Catholic bishops denounced Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ approach to asylum, framing it as a “right to life” issue. “I think it’s disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart,” evangelical Franklin Graham, a vocal Trump supporter, told the Christian Broadcasting Network this week. “I don’t support that one bit.”
In a speech to a small audience in Indiana on Thursday, Sessions pushed back against his Christian critics with an extraordinary defense: The Bible, he argued, supports the Trump administration’s approach to immigration enforcement. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” he said. “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.”
Thursday afternoon, the White House echoed Sessions’ argument. CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders what part of the Bible says it’s moral to separate children and their mothers. “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” she replied. “That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”
Romans 13 is a controversial chapter, frequently included in lists of “tough passages” for Christians to grapple with. The specific verses to which Sessions referred begin this way:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
The passage has proved irresistible to Christians with an interest in promoting deference to the state. Last year, Trump-supporting pastor the Rev. Robert Jeffress used the passage to justify why he believes the president has the authority to “take out” Kim Jong Un. The Rev. Ralph Drollinger, who leads a Bible study for Cabinet members including Sessions, published a Bible study in 2016 that used the passage to bolster an argument that national borders and boundaries are part of God’s design. Romans 13:4—which refers to rulers as “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”—is popular among police officers.
But Romans 13 has an even longer history as a cudgel against civil disobedience. It was hotly debated in revolutionary America, when some pastors withdrew from revolt because they believed Romans 13 mandated it. (Contemporary conservative Bible teacher John MacArthur has written that the Revolution defied Paul’s instruction, and therefore “the United States was actually born out of a violation of the New Testament principles.”) In the 19th century, defenders of slavery argued that Romans 13 mandated obedience to the Fugitive Slave Act. In the 1930s and 1940s, some European church leaders used the passage to encourage submission to Hitler. White Christians in apartheid South Africa frequently used it to defend the status quo.
Despite its frequent misuse, the passage is an important source of Christian political theology, according to Matthew Arbo, director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Oklahoma Baptist University. Arbo points out that the passage places God as the appointer of authorities, but not the appointer of specific laws. “One is not obligated to respect any and everything an authority orders simply because an authority orders it,” he said. “If the authority commands what is evil, then naturally no one should uphold it, Christian included.” As Augustine put it in the fourth century, echoing Paul: An unjust law is no law at all.
Romans 13 goes on to command the early church to “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Arbo pointed out the importance of the clause about giving what is owed, which allows for the possibility that some authorities are not owed honor and respect. “If Sessions’ interpretation of Romans 13 were followed, it would render martyrdom meaningless,” he said. “If the Christian were always in every instance to honor the authority’s command then as a result there would never be an instance of dying for allegiance to Jesus Christ.”
Sessions also referred in his speech Thursday to the Old Testament figure of Nehemiah, who rebuilt the walls of the city of Jerusalem after they were destroyed by an enemy. “The Lord told Nehemiah that when he got to come back home to Jerusalem, to build a wall. That’s the first thing he told him to do. It wasn’t to keep people in, it was to keep bad people out,” Sessions mused. “I don’t think there is a scriptural basis that justifies any idea that we must have open borders in the world today.” (Sessions, a lifelong Methodist, has apparently not been swayed by his own denomination’s slogan: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”) Immigration hawks love the story of Nehemiah: Jeffress preached a sermon to Trump on the morning of the inauguration in which the pastor compared Trump to the biblical figure, and concluded that “God is not against building walls.”
But again, Sessions omitted crucial context that would have tempered his biblical justification for, say, removing a nursing baby from its mother’s breast. First, the primary purpose of walls in the ancient world was to protect a country from physical attack, Arbo said. But the larger problem with Sessions’ argument is that it violates a much deeper and more frequent biblical injunction to care for strangers and the poor. “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong,” the book of Leviticus commands. In the New Testament, Jesus himself says that God’s eternal judgment will rest in part on whether one has “welcomed the stranger.” It’s even right there in Romans 13, just a few verses after the ones Sessions favors: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”