Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When British subjects in the original 13 colonies started rolling up their sleeves for the fight for independence in the 1770s, loyalist preachers hammered on a particular Bible verse from their pulpits. The words were meant to ice down the heated dissent and remind the upstarts to heed their British masters.

When Southern preachers blasted Northern abolitionists for defying the Fugitive Slave Act in the decade leading to the Civil War, they cited the same lines.

And on Thursday, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood at a lectern before a room in Fort Wayne, Ind., to defend the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their immigrant parents, he reached for the same quote from the 13th chapter of the New Testament book of Romans.

“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,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said, The Washington Post reported. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

Whether he realized it, Sessions restarted a theological debate that stretches far beyond American politics and passes through some of the darkest swamps of recent history.

The passage — “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” — has been read as an unequivocal order for Christians to obey state authority, a reading that not only justified Southern slavery but also authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.

But because the interpretation runs counter to so much of the Christian message, and drills right into the borderlands between church and state, the passage has also been incredibly controversial. In 1744, clergyman Elisha Williams remarked that the text was “often wrecked and tortured by such wits as were disposed to serve the designs of arbitrary power.” Sessions’s comments yesterday kicked up a similarly intense response.

“Hey, don’t bring God into this. I don’t think God picked you, because I don’t worship Vladimir Putin,” Stephen Colbert said Thursday night on “The Late Show.”

“Jesus said, ‘Suffer the children to come unto me.’ But I’m pretty sure all Sessions saw was the words ‘children’ and ‘suffer’ and said, ‘I’m on it.’ ”

The comments quickly started a surge of criticism online. Many questioned Sessions’s decision to employ religious language in a policy debate. Others accused the attorney general of selectively deploying a single passage of scripture while ignoring the larger message of Christianity.

“I guess Sessions forgot about the Gospels part of the Bible. Matthew 25:35 says ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,’ ” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said on Twitter. “Nothing in the Bible says to separate kids from parents. It teaches the opposite.”

“Where in your Bible does it say harm the #immigrant?” a prominent rabbi, Michael Adam Latz, asked on Twitter. “I’ve read the Bible-in Hebrew-and it commands us to LOVE the immigrant. You guys are epic moral frauds.”

Some experts argue the biblical interpretation invoked by Sessions yesterday stems from a misreading. The same chapter contains lines that often are cited as the basis for Christian warmth: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Yet others say the key to Romans 13 is the historical circumstances surrounding the letter the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Rome in the early days of the church.

Theology scholar Mike Frost wrote in 2016 that Romans 13 should not be used to quell dissent because it comes from a period when Christians faced persecution from the Roman Emperor Nero.

“This is the guy who was said to have had Christians dipped in oil and set on fire to light his garden at night,” Frost wrote. “It makes perfect sense that Paul would commend the fledgling church to keep its head down, to avoid rocking the boat, to submit quietly to the prevailing political winds. They had no choice. They lived under the authority of a dictator.”

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.

The same Bible verse was also cited by South Africa’s white Afrikaner minority as the country was locked down under a series of racist laws after World War II.

“Afrikaner theologians, pastors, and politicians alike all emphasized Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 that everyone must submit to the governing authorities as the central Scripture concerning Christian relations to the state,” scholars Joel A. Nichols and James W. McCarty III wrote in a 2014 article in the St. John’s Law Review. “Read through an ‘Afrikaner Calvinist’ lens that emphasized a concept known as ‘sphere sovereignty,’ theologians claimed that the apartheid state was ordained by God and must be obeyed by all living in South Africa.”

The latest controversy regarding Romans 13 to roil the religious community also involved a member of the Trump administration. In May 2017, Vice President Pence spoke at the Naval Academy graduation. In his comments, Pence urged the graduates to “follow the chain of command without exception. Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you.”

The comments were taken by religious scholars to be a reference to the hot-button Bible verse.

“There’s plenty to be argued about here, even if we act as if the New Testament has any kind of authority over the religiously plural officer corps that protects a democratic republic that separates church and state,” Gehrz argued in a blog post. “But it’s a troubling line, one that revives last year’s concerns about the possibility of military officers being given illegal orders by Pres. Trump.”

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