How to Use the Bible to Break Democracy


Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law. First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. 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.–Attorney General Jeff Sessions


Poor Jeff Sessions; he just can’t buy a break. All he did was remind people that obeying the law is a good thing, and all of a sudden he is facing a firestorm of criticism about his use of a Bible passage to defend his policy of separating children from their parents at the border. What is even the point of a scripture like Romans 13 if you can’t use it to support the law?

So far, most of the reaction to Sessions has focused on the fact that the Bible also supports things like families and treating children well. Others note that the same scripture that Sessions invoked was also invoked by proponents of slavery and opponents of the American Revolution. This is all true, but it doesn’t quite get to heart of Sessions’ argument. What he actually said was even more insidious than these criticisms would suggest.

Here is the scripture that Sessions reference in his address:

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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. . . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Romans 13:1-2, 5 NIV)

Seems straightforward, right? The Apostle Paul really does seem to be saying that people should obey the law. This is a perfectly rational argument. Socrates said much the same thing in Crito, when his friends urged him to escape from prison and avoid the death sentence passed by the Athenian jury. And I agree. Obeying laws is a good thing.

There are exceptions of course. As Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’” True enough, but most governments aren’t Hitler, and most people who break the law aren’t Hungarian freedom fighters. Throughout his life, King scrupulously advocated respect for the law by only disobeying it openly and with the willingness to accept the consequences. Same with Socrates.

So as a matter of legal theory, I do not really object to Sessions’ use of Romans 13 to suggest that “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” I have said the same thing myself on many occasions. Generally speaking, I think that having laws and enforcing them consistently are good things.

But this question is really not at issue in the current debate. What the Attorney General of the United States said in Ft. Wayne, Indiana yesterday was one of the most terrifying things that an American official has ever said in public, and Americans of all political and religious orientations should be scared to death.

Sessions didn’t invoke Romans 13 against people who were violating the law. He invoked it against people who were criticizing the law–and criticizing him for the way he has chosen to enforce the law. And that is an absolutely horrifying thing for the nation’s top legal official to do.

Look at who Sessions actually addressed his comments to:

Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law. . . .

Sessions is not talking to people who are breaking the law. He is not talking to people who are advocating breaking the law. He is talking to religious leaders and people of faith who are asking him to change the law. And his is telling them that their criticisms are not only unfair and illogical, but themselves “contrary to law.”

Think about that for a minute: the Attorney General of the United States just told that US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the President of the Methodist Council of Bishops, hundreds of other religious leaders, and millions of people of faith that criticizing him is both contrary to the law and against the teachings of the Bible.

This is not how democracy works, but it is exactly how authoritarian states work. The right to criticize laws and try to change them is perhaps the most basic right that people in a democracy have. Sessions himself, in his pre-Administration days, criticized laws and had plenty of unkind things to say about President Obama. And very few Republicans would interpret the next verses in Romans—”this is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. . . . If you owe taxes, pay taxes”—as God’s commandment not to criticize or try to change the tax code.

Sessions words are part of a growing and disturbing trend in the current administration to cast its critics as enemies—enemies of God, enemies of the state, and enemies of people. This is a very familiar road—one taken by far too many leaders in history and in our lifetimes. It does not lead anywhere that we want to go.


  1. Amen

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    One thing I don’t understand about his comments: my understanding is that presenting oneself at the border to petition for asylum is not “illegal entry” but is perfectly legal. Maybe he’s only talking about people who try to enter illegally, but my impression was that this was in the context of the large number of recent asylum seekers. So no one’s breaking the law, and they’re still biblically justified in taking children away from their parents? It seems clear to me that this has nothing to do with the law but is an attempt to dissuade people by the use of abject cruelty from even seeking asylum in the first place. And there is no biblical justification for doing that by terrorizing innocent children. I would have thought that was part of Christianity 101, but maybe Jeff missed Sunday School that day…

  3. “What the Attorney General of the United States said in Ft. Wayne, Indiana yesterday was one of the most terrifying things that an American official has ever said in public”

    I agree completely, until less than 24 hours later the President of the United States on live TV openly envied the brutal, murderous dictator of North Korea because of how Kim Jong-un has forced his victimized, oppressed population to sit up and pay attention when Kim speaks.

    President Trump on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un: “He speaks and his people sit up in attention. I want my people to do the same.”

    I cannot imagine a more terrifying or unAmerican thing coming from the mouth of an elected politician in the United States. We aren’t “his” people. We uphold the Constitution, and the Constitution directly prohibits the kind of forced attention and deprivations of freedom Trump is wishing for here.

  4. jaxjensen says:

    “and some are contrary to law” I don’t think Jeff is saying that spoken criticism is against the law, such as the criticism found on BCC recently. But criticism like that from actor John Cusack calling for a violent coup. Calling for the overthrow of the gov’t IS illegal. So Sessions isn’t wrong that “some are contrary to law.” I’m not sure that any of it is coming from “our church friends” though.

  5. jaxjensen says:

    John F…. we aren’t his by ownership (like Kim acts), but we are they people he serves (if you consider politicians ‘public servants’ anymore). In such a way, we are his people. We are also his people in that he is one of us, an American, in the way a person would call a kindred spirit “my kind of person” or “the people I belong with.”

    Praising the way Kim’s get respect from his people is egregious and probably harmful to the NK people.

  6. “Praising the way Kim’s get respect from his people is egregious and probably harmful to the NK people.”

    Yes, I think that this is the crucial point. By the time that this news gets through the North Korean propaganda machine, it is telling people that “Trump desires to be more like the Great Leader.” This will essentially help to destroy any idea that might be forming that there are places in the world like the United States where things are different.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Interestingly, the Prophet Joseph in the JST reconceptualized this passage as referring to authorities of the church rather than authorities of the state. I’ll quote the passage as it appears in LDS Footnotes:

    Chapter 13

    Obedience to Rulers

    1 LET every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power [328] but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword [329] in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger [330] to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: [331] for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. [332]

    [328] JST inserts “in the church”. This section of the chapter is universally taken in secular scholarship to refer to the powers of the state. The Church had yet to experience any persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities, and so Paul advising the members to be subject to them is not unreasonable. The issue of obeying unjust rulers would then be left unaddressed as unnecessary to address. The JST shifts this to refer specifically to Church authorities whom one can take as never acting in a violent fashion against the membership.
    [329] JST “rod.” This conforms with the change of this passage from dealing with secular authorities to spiritual ones; spiritual authorities do not have the power of life and death.
    [330] ekdikos executor of justice.
    [331] JST “pay ye your consecrations also unto them;”, again referring to Church authorities.
    [332] JST “But first, render to all their dues, according to custom, tribute to whom tribute, custom to whom custom, that your consecrations may be done in fear of him to whom fear belongs, and in honor of him to whom honor belongs.” This would be the first mention in the JST of secular authorities—the people who receive tribute and custom (that is, tolls). The implication is that the one to whom fear and honor belongs refers to God, however, and not the secular or Church authorities.

  8. Becca D. says:

    Jeff Sessions would make a great Apostle. “Don’t criticize me and don’t criticize the church policies.” Yep, sounds like Apostle material to me.

  9. What’s interesting Kevin, given the recent focus on Joseph’s use of Clarke’s Bible Commentary in the NT JST, is how at odds with Clarke this reading is as well.

  10. jaxjensen, we aren’t *his* people. He is our employee.

  11. I almost drove off the road when I heard this Trump quote about Kim:

    “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough,”

    Take over a situation? The situation his grandfather and father created and maintained through murder, starvation and a gulag system, and which Kim himself has perpetuated? WTF??

    Talk like this is not just stupid, it is dangerous, and it is not unrelated to the comments Sessions made above. They believe this BS they are spouting…..THEY BELIEVE IT!

    A regime that will take away the children of the most vulnerable in society in the name of God and country will eventually come to take away your children to fight in conflicts they have started around the world.

  12. John F. He is one of us… We are the people he belongs to… his people.

  13. Amen!

    Have LDS church leaders issued any recent statements regarding current immigration practices?

    I only found this from 2014:

    “”Our principle, I declared to the president, is that we love our neighbor, which means we love all people, in all places and at all times,” President Uchtdorf said. “One of the core values we stand for is families. The separation of families (in U.S. immigration policy) isn’t helping.”

    President Uchtdorf is a citizen of both Germany and the United States, “and I’m proud of it,” he said. He said he twice was a refugee during World War II in Germany as a boy and understands the hardships many immigrants face.

    He reiterated the important place border security has in the Utah Compact and the LDS Church’s stance.

    “One of the major pillars is the right to bring and enforce laws, using the rule of law, that enforce our borders,” President Uchtdorf said. “First we need a just and caring law balanced with the values and principles that we love our neighbors, that families stay together, and enforce just and compassionate laws.”

    I like this:
    ““Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”

  14. and these quotes from Theodore Roosevelt:

    “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

    ““Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”

  15. Maddy,

    The most recent LDS Church official statement about immigration came in January of this year and addressed the DACA program:

    In it, we find the following:

    “The Church does not advocate any specific legislative or executive solution. Our hope is that, in whatever solution emerges, there is provision for strengthening families and keeping them together.”

    So, no specific statement about this particular issue, but a strong preference for keeping families together.

  16. Paul Ritchey says:

    Michael: I think it’s important to read his use of “contrary to” charitably. I, in good faith, believe that he meant to express that some criticisms from his “church friends” are contrary to law in the sense that they misunderstand or misrepresent law or certain laws. I do not believe he meant to suggest that the criticisms themselves *violate* law in the technical sense (that is, incur legal liability). Even Sessions, I think, would find such an unconstitutional position objectionable. Further, I see no other indication in the text or context of his statement that is consistent with the latter interpretation (all seem consistent with the former).

    Lest I be read to defend his statement, let me say that I find it hideous, unsupported, and on top of all that, profoundly ironic (“Jeff” is short for Jefferson Beauregard. Old habits die hard; old rebels even harder).

  17. Paul, I think you are probably right that he does not mean that people who criticize him should be prosecuted. I can find enough charity to agree that he is not going to start prosecuting Catholic bishops for speaking against him. I do, though, think that he probably means something like, “what you are criticizing is a valid law, and, as religious people, you should follow Paul’s advice and support the law, so you are not really following God when you criticize me.” And I think that this dangerously conflates disobeying the law with criticizing and trying to change the law.

  18. “as religious people, you should follow Paul’s advice and support the law, so you are not really following God when you criticize me.” And I think that this dangerously conflates disobeying the law with criticizing and trying to change the law.

    Bingo — that’s exactly what he’s saying.

  19. This conversation is all very nice, but how does having it reunite the children who have been taken from their parents?
    Trump is a narcissist. They are not influenced by criticism.

  20. It’s just been amazing to watch this left wing feeding frenzy about the little ones being “ripped from their mothers arms” as they cross the border.
    This is a law that goes back ten years. TEN YEARS! Pres Bush and Pres Obama decided they were above the law and didn’t have to enforce it. Well there’s a new sheriff in town who ran his campaign on the fact that he would enforce our nations immigration laws. He won. The laws are being enforced. He has gone on record saying he doesn’t like the child separation part of the law and has repeatedly asked Democrats to sit down with him and change it. They won’t. Why? Because they want to get their base all worked up in a lather so they will vote for them and campaign for them int eh midterms. From the sound of most of the posts here, it’s working.
    Believe me, they don’t care about the kids. They care about taking back the house and the senate so they can take us backwards in time to the Clinton years and try to once again hoist their failed ideology on our country. Sad.

  21. Fred,

    There is probably no part of this debate as patently dishonest as Trump’s assertion that he has asked Democrats to sit down with him and fix this. Democrats are out of power. They have no control over the House agenda and no control over this law. Republicans control the entire government right now. To blame the Democrats for anything, one has to pretend that Congress works in a way that it has not worked since around 1794. If Republicans want to fix this, it will be fixed. If they don’t it won’t be fixed. That’s what “controlling both houses of Congress and all three branches of government means.”

    I think that we can have a productive debate about whether or not this law goes back to Bush and Obama–yes, there was a law that people could be charged with, but there has always been substantial prosecutorial discretion. The law has always allowed, but has never required parents to be separated from their children. That distinction is crucial, because the difference between what the law allows and what the law requires is the essence of executive power. At a very basic level, deciding how to enforce laws is what being an executive means.

    But there is simply no way to frame a discussion of any kind about who has the power right now to create legislation, or who has to take the blame if legislation is not created. There is nothing that Democrats can do, even with Trump’s support, as long as Republicans control the House and the Senate. The solution HAS to involve Congressional Republicans That’s just how this works. And if Trump wanted to end family separation, he could do it with a phone call right now in a way that was completely legal and consistent with his Constitutional authority.

  22. “left wing feeding frenzy”
    What is the reaction you believe that people should have when they learn their government is doing (or has been doing) something deeply immoral? Staid complacency? Profiteering? Why is public expression of disagreement something people should be ashamed of?

  23. I would also add that taking the children away isn’t a law but a policy enacted by the DOJ about six weeks ago. It’s despicable.

  24. Exactly!

  25. And it came to pass that the chief judge sent a proclamation throughout all the land, desiring the voice of the people concerning the admitting their brethren, who were the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
    22 And it came to pass that the voice of the people came, saying: Behold, we will give up the land of Jershon, which is on the east by the sea, which joins the land Bountiful, which is on the south of the land Bountiful; and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance.
    23 And behold, we will set our armies between the land Jershon and the land Nephi, that we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon; and this we do for our brethren, on account of their fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin; and this their great fear came because of their sore repentance which they had, on account of their many murders and their awful wickedness.

  26. Michael Austin,
    I cannot believe that you think that President Trump asking for democrats to help fix immigration law is “patently dishonest”. He has asked for their help on this issue repeatedly over the past 18 months. He has also beat them up for not negotiating in good faith. I have no precise knowledge of what if any real negotiations on this issue have occurred.
    I do know that immigration law cannot be changed by republicans alone. It takes 60 senators to pass laws, and there are only 51 republican senators right now. If you are ignorant of this, perhaps you are also missing the fact that some of the criticism that AG Sessions cites is complaints to the AG and President about the existing law. The AG has zero power to change laws, that is the sole purview of Congress. Radical reinterpretation of existing laws away from their clear meaning is also something that the AG should not do. This is one of the reasons that dissatisfaction with the Obama administration went way up and lead to Trump being elected. To expect the AG to go back to the same misadministration of the law is unreasonable. He has always disagreed with this type of governing, and his boss was elected to put a stop to it.

    The bottom line, this is not a compassionate policy, but the best way to change it is to change the law. Both parties are needed to change the law.

  27. el oso

    It takes 51 votes in the Senate to pass a law. You may remember this from the Gorsuch nomination and the tax bill, both of which passed with no Democratic votes. What takes 60 votes is a cloture motion to end a filibuster. And the chances of Democrats filibustering a bill to fix this problem is zero. And even if they did, the Republicans could simply change the rules again.

    But that is not the real issue. What Democrats cannot do right now is bring legislation to the floor because they do not control the agenda. No Democrat can even get a chance to vote on this unless the Republicans agree to bring it to the floor. The Democrats cannot work with Trump. They can work with the Republicans, but the Republicans have to invite them into the process. That is how it works when one party controls both Houses. The other party has no ability to initiate legislation or do anything other than vote yes or no on the final bill unless the majority party invites them into the lawmaking process.

    Trump is making two assertions that ars simply not true. The first is that this policy can only change if the law changes. This mistakes what the law allows for what the law requires. The law permits separation but does not require it. Trump and Sessions can decide whether or not to charge family heads with misdemeanors and jail the parents or simply to detain and deport them. Either one is acceptable under the law. Either Trump or Sessions could end this with a phone call.

    The second false statement is that Democrats have any power to prevent this. They don’t. They may choose to vote for a bill that Republicans move to the floor. And, from all indications they will. But they cannot work with Trump to fix it.

    Trump wants to force Congress to fund a wall. This is a hostage situation.

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