Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

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In case you missed it, here is a taste of CNN’s piece on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s use of Romans 13 to defend the separation of immigrant families at the border:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible on Thursday in defending the Trump administration’s immigration policies — especially those that result in the separation of families — directing his remarks in particular to “church friends.”

“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,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.”

Read the rest here.

I will let the theologians debate whether Sessions is using this verse correctly in this context.

I can, however, offer some historical context.  Here is what I wrote about Romans 13 in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction:

Romans 13 states clearly that one who resists such authority will receive “damnation.”  These passages require Christians to pay their taxes (“tribute”).  When taken at face value, they seem to be teaching complete submission to government authorities with no exceptions or caveats.

This is exactly the way in which many Loyalists, mostly Anglican ministers, interpreted the meaning of these passages of Scripture.  Jonathan Boucher no doubt had Romans 13 in mind when he wrote, “To resist and to rebel against a lawful government, is to oppose the ordinance of Godand to injure or destroy institutions most essential to human happiness….

For a longer and more thorough treatment of Romans 13 in the revolutionary-age I recommend Daniel Driesbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

In a great post on the use of Romans 13 in American history, Chris Gehrz found a spike in the use of Romans 13 in public discourse during the 1840s and 1850s.

Gehrz’s post is supported by historian Mark Noll in his magisterial America’s God.  Noll calls our attention to Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister in Richmond, Virginia.  In 1860, Stringfellow alluded to Romans 13 (among other Bible verses) to justify slavery. He wrote “I have shown that Jesus ordained, that the legislative authority, which created this relation in that empire, should be obeyed and honored as an ordinance of God, as all government is declared to be.”

In light of this history, I will end this post with a few take-aways:

  1. Sessions’s use of the Bible to justify public policy has a long history in the United States, but I can’t  think of an example in which a federal government official used Romans 13 in this manner.  If you know of a case, please let me know.
  2. Sessions’s use of Romans 13 today places him on the side the opponents of the American Revolution and the defenders of slave-based Southern way of life.

2 thoughts on “Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

  1. I have been aided in understanding this passage by learning of the context in Rome at the time. Jews were expelled from Rome about 50 AD for problems with proselytizing or being factious to the point of causing general problems to civil society. It is not known if Christians were a part of the problem. It could be ( Acts 18-1-18). It seem that Paul felt the Gospel would go forward if the infighting stopped and he was on the record supporting obedience to the law. This makes sense in that context. How could anybody believe that it was for all times and all places? Answer: when you have the law and government on your side. Colored drinking water tastes the same as white drinking water. What’s the stir about? It’s the law.

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  2. Professor Fea – excellent post & retort.
    “As Roundhead rebels in the English Civil War and American rebels in the War of Independence knew, the possession of authority is in itself no indication that it has been given by God. Authority is to be judged on how it’s used, and whether the ruler is behaving justly.”
    “Bad theology can be very dangerous when it emboldens the tyrant and the oppressor. It has to be challenged wherever we find it.”
    https://www.christiantoday.com/article/does-romans-13-give-donald-trump-authority-to-take-out-kim-jong-un/111990.htm

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