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Russell Wangersky: Twisted Scripture

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible Thursday in his defense of his border policy that is resulting in hundreds of children being separated from their parents. — Mike Moore/The Journal-Gazette via AP
United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible Thursday in his defense of his border policy that is resulting in hundreds of children being separated from their parents. — Mike Moore/The Journal-Gazette via AP

I don’t know about anyone else but when I hear a senior American official quoting Scripture to justify separating children from their parents and locking them up in detention camps, I get more than a little nervous.

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

But that’s what U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did last week, saying, “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.”

Questioned about the statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed the approach.

“I can say it is very biblical to enforce the law,” said Sanders, adding, “that is repeated a number of times in the Bible.”

Of course, the Bible is a very big book. Not long after Sessions’ comments, social media was lighting up with this quote from Isiah 10-1-2: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.”

Others were pointing out, somewhat ominously, that Romans 13 has cropped up in U.S. politics before — when, for years, that verse was used to justify the continuation of slavery. Others have pointed out the use of Romans 13 as a justification for apartheid, and suggest that Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin both leaned on it to gain support for their administrations.

What makes it all the more bizarre is that Sessions would use such a religious justification in a country where the constitution actually establishes a clear separation between church and state.

While the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution basically prevents the government from intervening in religion, the law has been read by the courts to reach in the other direction as well.

Religion and governance have different ends; religions, even inclusive ones, follow rules for those who are inside the faith.

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court established a test to examine whether a proposed law violated the First Amendment: “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Religion and governance have different ends; religions, even inclusive ones, follow rules for those who are inside the faith.

Governments set social directions for everyone, not just for those who belong to a particular sect or faith.

Intertwining the two doesn’t have a history of making governments better. In fact, it has let governments select choice pieces of religious teaching to justify actions that could not otherwise be justified.

Instead of being answerable for their actions, those who make decisions merely claim they are led by a higher law — a higher law that they seem to have absolutely no compunctions about interpreting precisely in their own favour.

Why, for example, would Sessions choose Romans 13, when he could have referenced Exodus 22? “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

The answer is simple: Exodus 22 didn’t justify his particular ends.

It’s often said that, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Twisting Scripture to justify your own political ends?

Let’s just say it’s not the last refuge of the godly. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And when leaders cite religious texts, it’s most often because they see themselves of being above the laws of mere mortals.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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