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The trouble with using the Bible to support hard-line immigration policies

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blamed the separation of immigrant families on Democrats. (Video: Reuters)

It is not news that the Trump administration often takes hard-line approaches to immigration. On the day Trump announced his presidency, he pledged to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants, whom he called rapists and murderers, from illegally entering the United States.

But Thursday brought a new rationale for those policies, one that used biblical scripture to justify the administration's approach to some of the most controversial methods to combat illegal immigration.

While speaking to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind., Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the process of separating children from parents hoping to immigrate into the United States, claiming that it is required by law and noting that the Bible speaks to the importance of obeying the law. The Washington Post reported that dozens of boys who were forcibly separated from their parents at the border by a new Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy are among the more than 1,400 immigrant children in federal custody at an old Walmart along the Mexican border.

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” Sessions said. "I would cite to you 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."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who like Sessions is a conservative Christian, doubled down during a news briefing on the importance of the Bible in processing America's laws. When asked about Sessions applying his religious worldview to immigration policy, she said:

“I'm not aware of the attorney general's comments or what he would be referencing. I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law.... That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”

The comments by two of the Trump administration's most visible officials marked one of the first times the administration has connected its treatment of those seeking refuge in the United States to deeply held religious convictions. But the Trump administration and those who support it don't have a monopoly on biblical interpretation and have been repeatedly criticized for their treatment of children and immigrants, not just from the left, but from fellow Christians.

Franklin Graham, one of the most vocal evangelical supporters of the Trump administration, told CBN:

“I think it's disgraceful. It's terrible to see families ripped apart. I don't support that one bit.... We are a country of laws. Laws need to be obeyed. No question about that. But the situation we have today is a result of our lawmakers in Washington over generations ignoring this. And I'm hopeful that something can be done soon to fix it.”

And the leaders of several prominent evangelical groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote to Trump highlighting biblical lessons about family values.

As evangelical Christians guided by the Bible, one of our core convictions is that God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society. The state should separate families only in the rarest of instances. While illegal entry to the United States can be a misdemeanor criminal violation, past administrations have exercised discretion in determining when to charge individuals with this offense, taking into account the well-being of children who may also be involved. A “zero tolerance” policy removes that discretion — with the effect of removing even small children from their parents. The traumatic effects of this separation on these young children, which could be devastating and long-lasting, are of utmost concern.

Even conservative Christians in Congress such as Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) came out against the Trump administration's policy on the issue.

“We don’t want kids to be separated from their parents,” Ryan told reporters Thursday, calling for a legislative fix.

While the administration has not attracted much support for its handing of immigrant families, it is not yet clear if conservative voters have as big of a problem with it. Two of Trump's most attractive campaign promises to his base were maintaining law and order and preserving traditional religious values. It is for these reasons, among others, that Trump won the majority of white evangelicals and Catholics. One could argue that this is another promise he is fulfilling to those who sent him to the White House.

But what the proclamations from Sanders and Sessions fail to realize is that the majority of Americans are not Trump supporters, and certainly aren't conservative Christians interested in seeing the Bible used to enforce hard-line immigration policies.

The administration's approach could be attractive to those who already support Trump and are looking for a moral justification for their opposition to immigration. But beyond that, conservative Christians' unwillingness to speak out against a policy that looks to Scripture to support separating nursing mothers from their babies "because the Bible tells me so" risks losing a battle much larger than politics: the long-term reputation of the Christian faith.