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.