Column: Jeff Sessions and the Ruse of Selective Literalism

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For the Valley News
Published: 6/23/2018 10:40:09 PM
Modified: 6/25/2018 9:59:53 AM

The recent Bible lesson from Attorney General (and theologian wannabe) Jeff Sessions exposes the perils of engaging in what I call the ruse of selective literalism in approaching the Scriptures.

In seeking to justify the Trump administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy, which entails the detention of adult immigrants and asylum seekers and separating them from their children, Sessions referred to Romans 13 in a speech to law enforcement officers in Indiana. “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,” Sessions declared. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

So there.

Never mind that the same passage, which reads, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,” was used prominently by slaveholders in the South before the Civil War. The attorney general (and theologian wannabe) apparently believes that a simple reference to the Bible provides sufficient justification for a policy that many Americans find inhumane and draconian.

If Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who has taught Sunday school at his United Methodist church in Mobile, Ala., wants to embark on a Bible quotation spree, I have a few additional passages that he might want to consider. Jesus told his followers to “welcome the stranger,” for instance, and Deuteronomy states that God “loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Leviticus says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born,” and the book of Hebrews reminds us to “show hospitality to strangers.”

For those who profess loyalty to the Scriptures, these passages just might have some bearing on immigration policy.

Let’s not stop there.

Donald Trump garnered 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 election. These are people who claim unreserved fidelity to the Bible, so surely we should expect that Trump administration policies would have a grounding in “biblical values.” The Bible affirms that the created order is the handiwork of God, and Jesus expressed concern for even the tiniest sparrow. An administration steeped in the Scriptures, therefore, should offer a comprehensive program for environmental protection, including measures to counteract the devastating effects of climate change.

If Sessions and other Trump supporters want to engage in dueling proof-texts, bring it on.

In Job, we read: “Be careful that no one entices you by riches; do not let a large bribe turn you aside.” Jared and Ivanka, who have apparently profited handsomely from their time in the White House, might want to take note of this. This passage, together with Jesus’ admonition about the perils of riches, also provides the attorney general (and theologian wannabe) an opportunity to condemn the Supreme Court’s calamitous Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for the corrupting influence of money in political campaigns. Although this dark money undoubtedly represents enticement by riches, Sessions has remained silent.

The prophet Malachi condemns “those who defraud laborers of their wages,” something that the president has been accused of in his many construction projects. If Sessions truly wants to promote “biblical values,” perhaps he should have a conversation with his boss.

As should be evident by now, quoting the Bible, especially wrenching verses out of context, is (to employ a biblical metaphor) a double-edged sword. St. Paul, author of the passage to which Sessions referred, was obsessed with order. Indeed, he had to be; Paul

took on the burden of routinizing and institutionalizing the Jesus movement, and you can make a plausible argument that if he hadn’t done so, Christianity might not have survived past the first century.

But in addition to his pronouncements about order and obedience, Paul also issued a manifesto for equality, declaring that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.

When it comes to interpreting the Bible, context — and seeing the big picture — is everything. What would Jesus say about families ripped apart, children taken from their parents? “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not,” Jesus said, “for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Times change, and circumstances may be different, but it’s hard to imagine someone who made a statement like that endorsing a “zero-tolerance” border policy that sunders children from their parents.

Sessions, however, like so many of the evangelicals who support Trump, engages in the ruse of selective literalism. Evangelical culture warriors, for example, like to claim that the Bible opposes both abortion and homosexuality. But that is far from clear; what is beyond dispute is that the Bible has a whole lot more to say about divorce and about tending to the poor and the homeless than it does about abortion or homosexuality.

The ruse of selective literalism.

I will give the attorney general (and theologian wannabe) a break on one point. Yes, it sure is a lot of fun to toss out Bible references. It disarms critics and puts your enemies on their heels. Who wants to quarrel with the words of Scripture, after all? At the very least, it sends every journalist in Washington to the internet to figure out what in the world you’re talking about.

So in that spirit of playfulness, I close with one more biblical quotation, which may in fact be germane to everything from tax cuts and health care to banking reform and immigration policies. “Woe to those who make unjust laws,” the prophet Isaiah said, “to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

Ahem, and Amen.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College, director of the Society of Fellows and host of The Briefing on Sirius XM.

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