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Opinion

The Book of Sessions: America Blearily Awakens to a New Theocracy

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church, a Protestant denomination with a range of political positions neatly illustrated by the fact that both Sessions and Hillary Clinton belong to it. The leadership is ideologically closer to Clinton, as can be seen in the statement issued by UMC General Secretary Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, who called Sessions’ support for the Trump administration’s immigration policy “a shocking violation of the spirit of the gospel.”

Make no mistake, we need to be concerned about Sessions’ type of Christianity, which is no less “really Christian,” empirically, than progressive Christianity. As recently as 2017, Sessions went on the record suggesting that “secularists” are unfit to govern, adding, in a moment of spectacular projection, “without God, there is no truth, and it’s all about power, ideology, advancement, agenda, not doing the public service.”  

Any guesses as to which other headline-making white Christian theocrat is also a fan of this sort of rhetoric? Why, none other than serial predator and professional evangelical Roy Moore—known for sexually assaulting underage girls, winning 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in Alabama’s special election to fill Sessions’ Senate seat, and being removed as Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court for ethics violations. One of these violations involved Moore’s refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Judicial Building in 2003 and subsequently proclaiming, “Without God, there can be no ethics.”

With the vast majority of America’s white evangelicals behind them, men like Moore and Sessions are working to undermine and ultimately obliterate any meaningful separation of church and state in the United States. And the deity they and the vast majority of America’s white evangelicals serve is one made in their own image: punitive, patriarchal, tyrannical and racist. Sessions let the cat out of the bag with respect to the racism when, last week, he defended the Trump administration’s cruel policy of criminalizing asylum seekers—a violation of international law—and separating the children in these families from their parents at the border. “I would cite you to [sic] 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.”
Romans 13 was widely used in 19th-century America to defend slavery, and it was also a favorite passage of the Nazis. That Trumpist government officials would cite it in defense of cruel and illegal treatment of brown foreigners is not surprising at all.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is the daughter of one of America’s most prominent evangelicals, soon followed up with the more grammatical (if less scripturally specific) assertion, “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” One can argue that this is a bad reading of scripture, but doing so in the public sphere is largely beside the point. Trump’s cabinet is dominated by radical evangelicals. The vice president is one. When Christian nationalists are in power and perpetrating horrors, we should oppose their dominionism not with a different reading of the Bible, but with a robust defense of pluralism and secularism. We do, however, need to understand their ideology.

As has been noted numerous times in the press already, Romans 13 was widely used in 19th-century America to defend slavery, and it was also a favorite passage of the Nazis. That Trumpist government officials would cite it in defense of cruel and illegal treatment of brown foreigners is not surprising at all. The flood of criticism of the policy now coming from prominent white evangelicals is admittedly somewhat surprising. Even the notoriously pro-Trump Franklin Graham called the policy “disgraceful,” while trying to shift as much of the blame away from Trump as possible.

I would strongly suggest that we take such criticisms with not just a grain, but a neatly biblical pillar, of salt. To quote a little Paul myself, verbal gestures like Graham’s are “but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” if they are not followed up with meaningful action. And we have no reason to expect that white evangelicals, 75 percent of whom have a favorable view of Trump’s performance, will engage in any meaningful opposition. To be sure, we have yet to see if the ongoing revelations about the horrors faced by families at the border will cause a dip in white evangelical support for Trump, but if it ever falls below the mid-60s I will eat my hat.
Will the white evangelicals, who may end up adopting some of these essentially trafficked children, shed any tears for their brown birth mothers as they alienate them from their cultural heritage and funnel them into their program of “raising up warriors for Christ?”
If there’s one thing besides covering up abuse that white evangelical leaders excel at, it’s marketing and PR. They vote to uphold white supremacy, but their leaders are no longer supposed to be as obvious about white supremacism as Sessions was in his awkwardly phrased Romans 13 remark. At the moment, with the cover blown on so many of their abuse scandals, thanks in part to “ex-vangelicals” speaking out under hashtags like #ChurchToo and #EmptyThePews, white evangelical leaders are well aware that they are under the microscope, and they are working overtime to salvage their image. We should not make it easy for them. As those of us who grew up in white evangelical subculture know, the prevailing authoritarian ethos leads to evangelicals valuing appearances over people, with respect to both families and churches. This is how the pervasive abuse happens. And while the Southern Baptist Convention—America’s largest Protestant denomination—just elected a younger, more charismatic leader as its president at its annual meeting, J.D. Grear still holds to the denomination’s anti-feminist theology. Grear also proclaimed himself “proud” to sign the hateful anti-LGBTQ Nashville Statement put out by a coalition of prominent evangelicals last summer. Lipstick on a pig, and all that.

Meanwhile, there is another aspect of evangelical involvement in the separation of children that has not yet received the attention it deserves—and that proponents of human rights will need to keep a close eye on. It has recently come to light that many of the children taken from their families are being sent to adoption agencies across the United States, raising concerns that they will never be returned to their parents. This essentially amounts to the trafficking of foreign children, a practice in which many U.S.-based religious adoption agencies that operate in foreign countries have already been shown to be complicit.

Religious organizations play an outsized role in foster care and adoption in the United States, often discriminating against members of the LGBTQ community while receiving tax money and, despite being registered as non-profits, running themselves essentially like businesses. One massive evangelical adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services, had an annual budget of 9.1 million dollars in 2010, only 694,000 dollars of which was spent directly on serving children, according to journalist and researcher Kathryn Joyce’s powerful exposé The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption.

Evangelicals who adopt children often do so in the spirit of a missionary project, and organizations like Bethany—which has issued its own statement condemning the policy of separating children from their families—have a long record of engaging in highly deceptive and manipulative practices, including pressuring birth mothers into signing away their children.

How seriously, then, should we take evangelical criticisms of Trump’s child separation policy? Will the white evangelicals, who may end up adopting some of these essentially trafficked children, shed any tears for their brown birth mothers as they alienate them from their cultural heritage and funnel them into their program of “raising up warriors for Christ?” More likely, they will carry on pushing America toward a Gilead-style theocracy without ever owning up to the harm they have done in supporting the current president. Blessed be the fruit.

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