Baptist leaders joined a chorus of voices criticizing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for using the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from migrant parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Addressing criticism by church leaders of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, the former Alabama senator cited the “clear and wise command” of the Apostle Paul in the 13th Chapter of Romans “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
“I have given the idea of immigration much thought and have considered the arguments of our church leaders,” Sessions said June 14 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced. A mere desire to benefit from entry to the nation does not justify illegal entry. And, there are of course adverse consequences to illegal actions.”
Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, took exception to the attorney general’s use of the Bible in a statement June 18.
“The policy of ripping children from the arms of parents is outrageous, and quoting Scripture in its defense is heinous,” Paynter said. “While it is necessary to control the flow of immigrants and refugees into the country, the use of tactics meant to traumatize and inflict irreparable harm to children and their parents is un-American and certainly do not appear anywhere in the Bible I read.”
Lee Spitzer, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, called it an “erroneous appropriation of the New Testament.”
“No responsible Christian theologian would assert that Romans 13, or any other passage in the Bible, supports the horrific separation of children from parents that we are witnessing at the present time,” Spitzer said in an open letter to Sessions dated June 15. “In fact, both the Old and New Testaments call those who believe in God to welcome refugees and immigrants with open arms and friendship, with loving care and concern, and with the willingness to assist others in enjoying the prospects of a future based on hope and opportunity.”
Asked June 14 about whether the policy is moral, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said she had not yet seen Sessions’ comments.
“I can say it is very biblical to enforce the law,” said Sanders, daughter of former presidential candidate and one-time Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee. “That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”
American Baptist Home Mission Societies Executive Director Jeffrey Haggray criticized both Sanders and Sessions in a statement June 19.
“Treating children as prisoners, depriving them of their basic right to be with their families, is not biblical in any way,” Haggray said. “American Baptist Home Mission Societies decries this absurd interpretation of Scripture. Since Jesus’ time it has been God’s intent to keep families together, despite insensitive governments.”
Two days before Sessions’ speech the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution desiring “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.”
On Monday more than 600 clergy and lay leaders from the United Methodist Church accused Sessions of violating church law. The group urged Methodist churches in Alabama and Virginia where the attorney general attends to address his alleged violation of the denomination’s Book of Discipline.
In his original speech last week, Sessions requested that religious leaders criticizing the policy “also speak up strongly to urge anyone who would come here to apply lawfully, to wait their turn, and not violate the law.”
Asked a second time about the policy June 18, Sanders said, “I think any evangelical that — or in any church for that matter — that feels strongly, they should open up their doors and help facilitate some of these individuals.”
“I think that’s their calling, that’s the mission of the church, and they should certainly fulfill that,” the White House spokesperson said. “If they want to fix the immigration system, then they should call their members of Congress and ask them to join with us to do that.”