Attorney General Jeff Sessions displayed an appalling lack of appreciation for the religious establishment clause, not to mention simple human dignity. Speaking to a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and in the wake of the Church’s condemnation of the barbaric policy of separating children from their parents at the border, Sessions proclaimed: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. 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. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” Later in the day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated his religious admonition to obey the law.

This is horrifically objectionable on multiple grounds. First, he is a public employee and must uphold the First Amendment’s establishment clause. If Sessions wants to justify a policy, he is obligated to give a secular policy justification. (Citing the Bible — inaptly — to Catholic bishops who exercise their religious conscience in speaking out against family separation may be the quintessential example of chutzpah.) Second, he is a policymaker, in a position to change a position that is inconsistent with our deepest values, traditions and respect for human rights. Third, the bishops were not advocating civil disobedience; they were objecting to an unjust law. Sessions is trying to use the Bible to squelch dissent.

Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig takes issue with the way Attorney General Jeff Sessions is using scripture to justify separating families at the border. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

We should point out that invoking this Biblical passage has a long and sordid history in Sessions’s native South. It was oft-quoted by slave-owners and later segregationists to insist on following existing law institutionalizing slavery (“read as an unequivocal order for Christians to obey state authority, a reading that not only justified southern slavery but authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and South African apartheid”).

I’m no expert in Christianity, but the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was when he drafted his letter from the Birmingham jail:

Follow Jennifer Rubin‘s opinionsFollow
Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Sessions perfectly exemplifies how religion should not be used. Pulling out a Bible or any other religious text to say it supports one’s view on a matter of public policy is rarely going to be effective, for it defines political opponents as heretics.

The bishops and other religious figures are speaking out as their religious conscience dictates, which they are morally obligated to do and are constitutionally protected in doing. A statement from the conference of bishops, to which Sessions objected, read in part:

At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life. The Attorney General’s recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection. These vulnerable women will now face return to the extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country. This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence.

Reminding the administration of the meaning of family values, the bishops continued, “Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”

The Catholics are not alone. The administration’s vile policy has alarmed a wide array of faith leaders. The Southern Baptist Convention issued their own statement. It is quoted at length because it is so powerful:

WHEREAS, Every man, woman, and child from every language, race, and nation is a special creation of God, made in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27); and
WHEREAS, Longings to protect one’s family from warfare, violence, disease, extreme poverty, and other destitute conditions are universal, driving millions of people to leave their homelands to seek a better life for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren; and
WHEREAS, God commands His people to treat immigrants with the same respect and dignity as those native born (Leviticus 19:33–34Jeremiah 7:5–7Ezekiel 47:22Zechariah 7:9–10); and
WHEREAS, Scripture is clear on the believer’s hospitality towards immigrants, stating that meeting the material needs of “strangers” is tantamount to serving the Lord Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:35–40Hebrews 13:2); and
WHEREAS, Southern Baptists affirm the value of the family, stating in The Baptist Faith and Message that “God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society” (Article XVIII), and Scripture makes clear that parents are uniquely responsible to raise their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).  . . .
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas, Texas, June 12–13, 2018, affirm the value and dignity of immigrants, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, or legal status; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we desire to see immigration reform include an emphasis on securing our borders and providing a pathway to legal status with appropriate restitutionary measures, maintaining the priority of family unity, resulting in an efficient immigration system that honors the value and dignity of those seeking a better life for themselves and their families; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we declare that any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we encourage all elected officials, especially those who are members of Southern Baptist churches, to do everything in their power to advocate for a just and equitable immigration system, those in the professional community to seek ways to administer just and compassionate care for the immigrants in their community, and our Southern Baptist entities to provide resources that will equip and empower churches and church members to reach and serve immigrant communities. . . .

Rabbi David Wolpe dryly observed that “until 2018, I don’t believe any reader of the Bible has argued that separating families is rooted in the Bible, and if the Bible is about obeying the government, it is hard to understand what all those prophets were yelling at the kings about.” (Meanwhile, 26 Jewish organizations sent a letter condemning the policy to Sessions.)

Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has written extensively on the role of religion in politics. “I would say that this is just the most recent, but also one of the most egregious, ways that those who call themselves Christians are disfiguring and discrediting their faith. They are living in an inverted moral world, where the Bible is being invoked to advance cruelty,” he said. “Rather than owning up to what they are doing, they are trying to sacralize their inhumane policies. They are attempting to harm children and then dress it up as Christian ethics.”

He added: “This shows you the terrible damage that can be done to the Christian witness when the wrong people attain positions of power. They subordinate every good thing to their ideology, twisting and distorting everything they must to advance their political cause. In this case, it’s not simply that an authentic Christian ethic is subordinate to their inhumane politics; it is that it is being thoroughly corrupted, to the point that they are using the Bible to justify what is unjustifiable.”

If the administration is embarrassed by a policy they are trying to insist is required by law (that is untrue, and I know the prohibition against lying is very biblical) they should change it. Trump and his aides need to stop shifting blame to other politicians, and stop telling Christians what their obligations are. Frankly, the lack of outrage from Trump’s clique of evangelical supporters on this issue is not simply unusual given the near-universal outrage in faith-based communities, but is a reminder that leaders of  “values voters” traded faith for the political game of power and access. As Wehner put it, “To watch the Christian faith be stained in this way by people like Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders is painful and quite a disturbing thing to watch. I don’t know whether they realize the defilement they’re engaging in, but that’s somewhat beside the point. The defilement is happening, and they are leading the effort. It’s shameful, and it’s heretical.”