Was Jeff Sessions Wrong to Cite St. Paul and Romans 13?
He had a point, though the Bible does not provide direct counsel for U.S. border laws.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the separation of children from detained immigrants by quoting Scripture back to his critical “church friends.” For this, he has been widely denounced by religious voices.
“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 them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
This angered many “church” friends and others. They recall slave masters and Nazis who also cited St. Paul’s “controversial” admonition to obey civil laws when demanding submissive allegiance.
These fulminations against Romans 13 as supposedly a frequent justification for tyranny are fierce. Many may wonder if it shouldn’t just be deleted from the Bible, or at least ignored. Some critics have conflated St. Paul, Sessions and sordid American history as a miasma of interlocking oppressions.
Critics Take on Sessions and Romans 13
An Atlantic article fumed, “Sessions may claim the Bible’s contested authority, but what the attorney general actually has on his side is the thread of American history that justifies oppression and domination in the name of law and order.“
One cleric declared, “As a United Methodist bishop I am ashamed that AG Jeff Sessions is a United Methodist and either never learned the truths taught in our holy scripture or is willing to sacrifice his faith for his political position.”
Theologians in The Washington Post asserted that “Sessions’s argument that U.S. citizens should unquestioningly submit and obey [sic] to governing authorities follows” arguments from Apartheid’s defenders. They also insisted the “Bible shouldn’t — and can’t — be used to argue against immigration,” offering their own scriptural counsel for open border policies.
Religion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig was unsparing. She accused Sessions of “radically depart[ing] from the Christian religion, inventing a faith that makes order itself the highest good and authorizes secular governments to achieve it.”
Bruenig ominously warned:
If you had all the power in the world, maybe you would also hear a serpent dipping its smooth body down from some shadowy bough to say: God wants you to do whatever you like with your power, and whatever you do with it is good.
What Christianity Teaches About Romans 13
Did St. Paul countenance unlimited state authority? The opening verses from Romans 13 declare:
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.
To hear many of these critics, St. Paul’s words have only be exploited by tyrants to gain unquestioning subservience. But Christians are called generally to obey civil laws in every society unless they are egregiously unjust. Romans 13 has been central to this.
The Catholic Catechism quotes Romans 13 when explaining that the “authority required by the moral order derives from God.” And: “The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.”
Thomas Aquinas is quoted in the Catechism:
A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.
The Catechism warns:
Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.
A Perilous Move
Sessions is Methodist like me, not Catholic. So he’s doesn’t have the Catechism memorized on this topic. As a traditional Protestant, he was responding to “church friends” deploying scripture against current immigration policy with his own selected Bible verses. Contra his critics, there’s no reason to think Sessions believes in unquestioning subordination to all laws under every regime. He was trying to explain the moral value of a lawful society. And widespread illegal immigration disrupts a lawful society.
Quoting Bible verses to support political specifics is always risk. Perhaps Sessions instead should have explained that any separation of families is tragic and grievous in all law enforcement situations. But, he could have added, an implied free pass for illegals accompanied by children would generate wider upheaval and greater tragedy.
Many “church friends” who are immigration activists have themselves long cited scripture when touting policy preferences. They will treat Old Testament passages commanding hospitality for sojourners as if they entailed more permissive immigration policies by the United States.
Compassion, Justice and Order
In truth, the Bible does not provide direct counsel for U.S. border laws. Christianity teaches all persons are God’s image bearers. That includes illegal immigrants. It also teaches that God ordains civil states to uphold order. The details of policies are largely left to prudential judgment and debate.
It’s now popular in American Christianity to stress the Bible as guarantor of entitlements in defense of the “marginalized.” That’s important. It’s much less popular to cite the state’s divinely ordained duties against disorder. But without that, there can be no pursuit of justice.
The widespread response to Sessions with sweeping caricatures of Romans 13 as enabler of tyrants shows this imbalance. What we need is to reflect on the full counsel of Scripture, which doesn’t isolate compassion, justice and order.