Jeff Sessions and the Christian Right

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Jeff Sessions is out as Attorney General.  Donald Trump has asked him to step down.   As Tara Isabella Burton has recently noted, Session helped to create “Trump’s brand of evangelical patriotism.”  Here is some of our coverage of Sessions’s stint as AG:

Jerry Falwell Jr. apparently told Trump to fire Sessions a few months ago.  He also wanted Sessions to “rot in jail.”

Sessions tried to help the administration define “religious freedom.”

Sessions quoted Romans 13 to justify Trump’s immigration policy separating children from their parents.  (Also here).

Alan Jacobs suggested Sessions’s views on government are not “formed” by Christian teaching.

Sessions often attended a Bible study of cabinet members led by a former UCLA basketball player.

Addendum:  In this piece at The Atlantic, Emma Green reminds that the court evangelicals were never big fans of Sessions.

Jerry Falwell Jr. Told Trump to Fire Sessions

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Here is a taste of Lorraine Wolbert’s piece at Politico:

Falwell said he has urged the president to fire Sessions and told POLITICO he planned to bring up the subject again Monday evening at a small gathering with Trump and the first lady. Later, Falwell and dozens of other faith leaders were to attend a formal White House dinner celebrating the evangelical community.

In forsaking Sessions, faith leaders are turning on one of their own, a man who for decades fought in the political trenches for conservative Christian causes. As a senator from Alabama, Sessions was one of the first Republicans to endorse Trump’s long-shot presidential campaign, taking heat from his party in return.

But he has angered Trump loyalists more recently because the Justice Department has not declassified all materials sought by Republicans in regard to the Russia investigation. The president believes Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia probe because of his involvement in the 2016 campaign, has failed to rein in a probe that Trump claims is driven by politics.

This is what court evangelicals do.  They tell the president to fire an Attorney General who rightly recused himself from the Mueller investigation.  Falwell Jr. wants Sessions fired in the hopes that his replacement as Attorney General will end the investigation.  In other words, Falwell Jr. wants to protect Trump against accusations that he is an adulterer, a liar, and a felon.  Yes, this is now what we can expect from the president of the largest Christian university in the world.  Oh wait, Liberty no longer holds that distinction.

“What Kind of a Man is This?

Today on Fox & Friends, Donald Trump once again trashed his Attorney General  Jess Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry.  (Sessions pushed back). At one point in the interview the President asked, referring to Sessions, “what kind of a man is this?”

Watch:

Reminded me of this classic scene:

What Does the Trump Administration Mean by “Religious Freedom?”

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At the State Department’s recent “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that there is a “dangerous movement, undetected by many” that is “challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”  This “dangerous movement,” Sessions added, “must be confronted and defeated.”

I am part of the camp that believes people with deeply-held religious beliefs on social issues should be free to uphold those beliefs in a pluralistic society.  In other words, there are times when liberty of conscience in matters of religion should be protected despite the fact that others might see these beliefs as discriminatory.  When it comes to living together with such deeply-held convictions, I hope for what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as “confident pluralism.”

Having said that, I am not a fan of the way the Trump administration uses “religious liberty” to invoke fear.  I wrote about this kind of fear-mongering in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Sessions’s use of words like “dangerous” and “undetected by many” and “confronted and defeated” wreaks of political scare tactics and culture-war rhetoric.  I am surprised he did not roll out the phrase “deep state.”

Sessions claims that “ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit.”  First, I don’t know of any contemporary cases, if any, in which government has threatened ministers from preaching from the Bible.  Fear is often based on false information.  Second, I suspect Sessions is conflating the preaching of “holy writ” from the pulpit with the endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit.  This is how many pro-Trump evangelicals understand “religious liberty.” This is why Sessions and Trump get so bent out of shape by the “Johnson Amendment.”  (Frankly, I think Trump could care less about the Johnson Amendment, but if he can promise its repeal he can gain political points with the evangelicals in his base).

Sessions goes on.  He talks about the ways the Pilgrims in Plymouth, the Catholics in Maryland, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Scots-Presbyterians in the middle colonies (Sessions apparently does not realize that Pennsylvania is a middle colony and most Scots-Irish came to Penn’s colony), and Roger Williams in Rhode Island championed religious freedom.  He adds: “Each one of these groups and others knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, outnumbered, and discriminated against.”  What Sessions fails to note is that the Pilgrims (and Puritans in Massachusetts Bay) did not provide this precious religious freedom to people who did not have the same religious beliefs as they did.  He fails to note that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island because he was kicked out of Massachusetts Bay for failing to conform to Puritan orthodoxy (among other things).  He fails to note that Puritans executed Quakers in Boston Commons.

I could go on, but I don’t have the time or inclination right now to exegete Sessions’s entire speech.  It is worth noting, however, that all of Sessions’s examples of religious liberty are Christian examples.  There is no mention of religious liberty for Muslims, Jews, or other people of faith.  Parts of Sessions’s address read like a Trump stump speech.  He lauds Trump for making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” again.  Really?  Is this what the Trump administration means when they say they are going to champion religious liberty?  This sounds more like the kind of Christian civilization those “liberty-loving” Puritans and Pilgrims wanted to create back in 17th New England.  (Ironically, these early American Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was a pagan holiday).

OK, I am rambling.  But if you want some context on the way Trump and his minions think about religious liberty, I encourage you to check out Jason Lupfer’s recent piece at Religion & Politics.  It is worth your time.

Jerry Falwell Jr.: Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein, and Christopher Wray Should “Rot” in “Jail”

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

At least he didn’t say that they should rot in hell.

Court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. blocked me from his Twitter feed a long time ago.  But others can still read his tweets and embed them.

Falwell Jr. said recently that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and FBI Director Christopher Wray “deceived Donald Trump into appointing them” and should “rot” in “jail.”

Read his exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) here.

Jeff Sessions Defends His Use of Romans 13

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Context: I have commented on Sessions’ use of Romans 13 in several posts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I also contributed to Washington Post and New York Times stories on this.

Recently Session talked with David Brody at Christian Broadcasting Network.  Here is a taste:

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed some of the criticism he and the White House have received in recent weeks regarding the administration’s immigration policy in an exclusive interview Thursday with CBN News.

Sessions was personally criticized when he quoted scripture to justify separating families at the southern border, something CBN’s David Brody asked him about.

“I don’t think it was an extreme position that I took,” said Sessions. “I directed it not to say that religion requires these laws on immigration. I just simply said to my Christian friends, ‘You know, the United States has laws and I believe that Paul was clear in Romans that we should try to follow the laws of government of which we are a part.'”

Sessions alluded to the Bible again when he discussed the morality of immigration law.

“I believe, strongly, that it is moral, decent and just for a nation to have a lawful system of immigration,” Sessions said. “I’m not aware of a single nation in the world that doesn’t have some sort of rules about who can enter and who cannot enter. I believe there is biblical support for that, too.”

Sessions told Brody that all of the criticism has not gone unfelt, especially the criticism coming from his Christian brothers and sisters.

Read the rest here.

The Bible and Anti-Immigration

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Robert Tsai, a Professor of Law at American University and the author of America’s Forgotten Constitution, discusses the use of the Bible in American immigration debates.  Here is a taste of his piece at Boston Review:

In general, there have been two strategies to combat the use of the anti-immigration Bible. The first is that “church and state” should be separated, not children from parents. That is a catchy slogan, but it is misguided as a strategy.

First, while religious practices in the United States are decentralized, three-quarters of its citizens identify with a Christian faith. Biblical arguments carry great weight.

Second, by asking citizens to bracket religious arguments as we debate the direction of immigration policy, we sap the national conversation of the moral power it needs. Concepts such as dignity, equality, fairness, and family integrity have sacred as well as secular sources.

Laying down one’s weapons unilaterally or complicating things by demanding that opponents disarm is counterproductive. Even if some people backed off religious argumentation (a dubious proposition) we would just be replacing a strict rule-of-law discourse with an equally empty invocation of legal rights without moral content—as if order itself was synonymous with justice.

We can’t really get at the heart of what is at stake unless we are willing to talk openly, and sometimes religiously, about pressing national policies.

The second strategy undertaken by some activists is more promising: engaging directly with strict, nationalistic interpretations of the Bible, as well as those that would put cultural purity or formalism above duties to treat others with respect and kindness regardless of their status in society.

Read the entire piece here.

 

More From *The Washington Post* on Sessions and Romans 13

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Kyle Swenson has a follow-up piece.  Good to see quotes from the Pietist Schoolman (Chris Gehrz) and Thomas Kidd.

Here is a taste:

Yet the lines have consistently been deployed to check opinions and activity running against the powers that be. As Thomas Kidd wrote on the religion blog Anxious Bench in 2014, Romans 13 was “the most commonly cited biblical text in Revolutionary America.”

The lines were championed by both colonists agitating for rebellion and loyalists. According to Anxious Bench’s Chris Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, the latter camp included clergymen such as New York’s Charles Inglis, who cited the scripture as proof that Christians “who really believe in a divine Revelation” should “make no Conscience of dishonouring the King, and rebelling against him” because it would be “knowingly trample on the Law of God.”

Pro-independence advocates, however, often followed the instruction of preacher Jonathan Mayhew, who “insisted that submission was contingent upon a ruler being just,” according to Kidd.

Following the American Revolution, Romans 13 became a frequent topic of sermons as the country debated slavery.

“The second spike you see is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong,” John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told The Post on Thursday. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

According to Gehrz, the passage largely disappeared from American pulpits after the Civil War. It did, however, make appearances overseas in the darkest moments of the early 20th century. Romans 13 was reportedly favored by Adolf Hitler and pushed by the Nazis to legitimize their authoritarian rule in 1930s Germany.

Read the entire piece here.  Read the original article here.

Nice work all-around!

*The New York Times* on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

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It’s been a crazy day.  Last night I was wrapping-up some writing on the Southern Baptist Convention, trying to finish some end-of- the-academic-year paperwork, scheduling some blog posts, and preparing for the Believe Me book tour.

Then Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 and The Washington Post asked me for some historical context. I have been answering questions all day.

Here is my contribution to Julia Jacobs’s piece at The New York Times:

Referring to the Bible in political speeches is nothing new, said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did so liberally, for example. But using Scripture as an enforcement tool for a particular federal policy is more concerning, Dr. Fea said.

“The founding fathers created the criminal justice system to be a largely secular criminal justice system,” he said. “They didn’t have in mind punishing criminals and condemning them using Bible verses.”

And the passage he chose drew considerable criticism. Historians and theologians took to the internet to point out that Romans 13 has been used to defend antiquated or outright contemptible points of view.

Before the nation’s founding, it was frequently used by Loyalists to oppose the American Revolution, Dr. Fea said. And in the 19th century, pro-slavery Southerners often cited the chapter’s opening verses to defend slavery — in particular, adherence to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the seizure and return of runaway slaves.

Read the entire piece here.

When the Bible Gets Caught-Up in an Immigration Debate

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Check out Sarah Jones’s recent piece at The New Republic on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13, “Who Would Jesus Lock Up.”  The subtitle reads: “Using the Bible to defend the government’s most indefensible policies is a longstanding American tradition.”  Very true.

Here is a taste of Jones’s piece:

But exegesis belongs to the realm of theologians. Sessions’s comments are troublesome not because they misrepresent the Bible or constitute a needlessly religious justification for a secular policy, but because they echo some of the darkest chapters in American history.

As Christian historian John Fea told The Washington Post on Thursday, American southerners frequently cited Romans 13 in defense of the institution of slavery. “[I]n the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong,” he said. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.” Slavery was legal, after all; to question Southern law was to question God.

In fact, early debates over the morality of slavery frequently played out in churches, a practice that continued as war broke out. Abolitionists had no difficulty defending the morality of their position, given the horrors of chattel slavery. Confederates, meanwhile, took up the language of a shared faith and deployed it in the service of propaganda.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course the Bible has also been used in American history to defend what some might call “defensible” positions.  Barack Obama did this all the time.  So did the Founding Fathers.

What strikes me about this whole Sessions controversy over Romans 13 is that the debate taking place online and in the media seems less about whether it is appropriate  to invoke the Bible in public debate in the first place, and more about which Bible verses should be used.

For example, here is Chris Cuomo of CNN.  Cuomo thinks Sessions’s use of Romans 13 is reprehensible. Then he goes ahead and uses his own Bible verses to show why Sessions is wrong:

Here is a piece on my friend, Holy Cross University professor Mathew Schmalz:

So what does the Bible say? College of the Holy Cross scholar and Associate Professor of Religious Studies Mathew Schmalz examined that issue more than a year ago, in an article for The Conversation.

Schmalz said the Bible is unambiguous in affirming the obligation to treat strangers with dignity and respect.

“As Matthew 25 makes clear, the Christians should see everyone as ‘Christ’ in the flesh. Indeed, scholars argue that in the New Testament, ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbor’ are in fact synonymous,” Schmalz wrote. “Thus the Golden Rule, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ refers not just to people whom you know – your ‘neighbors’ in a conventional sense – but also to people whom you do not know.”

Schmalz, an expert on the papacy and the founding editor of the Journal on Global Catholicism, has published opinion pieces in Newsweek, Salon, the Washington Post, Commonweal Magazine, and The National Catholic Reporter.

“It is true that the application of biblical principles to contemporary matters of policy is less than clear to the many Christians who have taken opposing sides regarding how the United States should deal with immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees,” Schmalz wrote. “However, in my reading of the Bible, the principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.”

The Southern Baptist Convention quotes Leviticus 19:33-34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35-40, and Hebrews 13:23 in its recent resolution on immigration.

Here are evangelicals from the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable citing the Bible:

So when does the Bible apply to a given policy issue and when does it not?  Maybe I will just go back to being a Catholic (like Mat Schmalz and Chris Cuomo).  Then I don’t have to worry about a thousand different interpretations of the Bible and just follow what the Church teaches on the matter.

Alan Jacobs: Most Evangelicals “are simply not *formed* by Christian teaching…”

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Alan Jacobs on Jeff Sessions‘s use of Romans 13:

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them. The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning. Or summarize a Sunday-school story that they clearly don’t understand, as when they compare Trump to King David because both sinned without even noticing that David’s penitence was even more extravagant than his sins while Trump doesn’t think he needs to repent of anything. But hey, as a Trump supporter once wrote to me: “Now we are fused with him.” 

And that’s it, that’s the law, that’s the whole of the law

But I think Jeff Sessions actually knows that the position he and Sanders articulate is inadequate. In his statement he lets slip one dangerous word: “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced.” 

Read the entire piece here.  I like Jacobs’s final line: “Start going down this road and you could end up sitting at your kitchen table trying to parse the way Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes just and unjust laws in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

You Are Never Going to Believe Which Verse Was Most Quoted in American Newspapers Between 1840 and 1920. (And It Wasn’t Romans 13)

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With all this talk of Romans 13, it is worth noting that the most cited verse in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16:

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

This verse, which seems to have some relevance to our current immigration mess, was:

  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1840
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1850s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1860s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1870s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1880s
  • The second most quoted Bible verse in the 1890s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1900s
  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1910s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1920s

Thanks to Lincoln Mullen for creating the tool that enabled me to write this post and make this point.

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.

The BBC on the White House Bible Study

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Ralph Drollinger is #35

We have written about the Bible study in the White House here and here.  Now the BBC has a piece on it and its leader, former UCLA basketball player Ralph Drollinger.

Here is a taste:

Every Wednesday, some of the world’s most powerful people meet in a conference room in Washington DC to learn about God.

The location can’t be revealed – the Secret Service won’t allow it – but the members can.

Vice-President Mike Pence. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The list goes on.

In total, 10 cabinet members are “sponsors” of the group. Not everyone attends every meeting – they are busy people – but they go if they can.

Meetings last between 60 and 90 minutes, and members are free to contact the teacher after-hours. So who is the man leading the United States’ most-influential bible study?

Step forward Ralph Drollinger, a seven-foot tall basketball pro turned pastor. Or, as the 63-year-old describes himself: “Just a jock with some bad knees.”

Read the rest here.

Jeff Sessions Gets It Right on the Cause of the Civil War (Yes, you read that correctly)

I did not hear the entire speech so I don’t know the larger context, but it does appear that Attorney General and former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions knows a thing or two about the cause of the Civil War.

Here is Yoni Appelbaum‘s tweet:

Also this.

Hawaii is the 50th State

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That’s right.  It is part of the United States of America.  It received statehood on August 21, 1959.  You can learn more about it here.  People born in Hawaii are U.S. citizens.  I think we all learned this lesson when Sessions’s boss suggested that the former POTUS was not born in the United States.  Yes, it is a “little island in the Pacific,” but it is part of this country just like the other 49 states.

Someone please pass this information along to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  He was only twelve when Hawaii became a state.  Perhaps he doesn’t remember.

Here is what Sessions said today to talk radio personality Mark Levin.
SessionsIt is also worth noting that this judge, Derrick Watson, is a federal judge.  The 9th Circuit is part of the United States Court of Appeals.  We have a federal court system in the United States.  We are no longer living under the Articles of Confederation and the Confederacy lost the Civil War.

Sally Yates Followed Jeff Sessions’s Advice

Watch this.  It is Jeff Sessions, Senator from Alabama, interviewing Sally Yates at her Senate hearing for the position of Deputy Attorney General.

As many of you know, Donald Trump fired Yates last night because Yates refused to defend his executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim nations.

Jeff Sessions, of course, is Trump’s current nominee for Attorney General.  I think the video speaks for itself:

It looks likes Yates took Sessions’s advice.  I wonder if Sessions will take his own advice.

What Qualifies as “Handling a Civil Rights Case” in the #AgeofTrump?

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Donald Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has some explaining to do.  Three civil rights lawyers claim that he had almost nothing to do with cases he claims that he “handled.”

Here is a taste from an op-ed written by those civil rights lawyers in today’s Washington Post:

Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions is trying to mislead his Senate colleagues, and the country, into believing he is a champion for civil rights. We are former Justice Department civil rights lawyers who worked on the civil rights cases that Sessions cites as evidence for this claim, so we know: The record isn’t Sessions’s to burnish. We won’t let the nominee misstate his civil rights history to get the job of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

In the questionnaire he filed recently with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions (R-Ala.) listed four civil rights cases among the 10 most significant that he litigated “personally” as the U.S. attorney for Alabama during the 1980s. Three involved voting rights, while the fourth was a school desegregation case. Following criticism for exaggerating his role, he then claimed that he provided “assistance and guidance” on these cases.

We worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which brought those lawsuits; we handled three of the four ourselves. We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them. He did what any U.S. attorney would have had to do: He signed his name on the complaint, and we added his name on any motions or briefs. That’s it.

Read the entire op-ed here.