The emergence of “Trump Evangelicals” is baffling and confusing. The latest puzzle in what has become a political sideshow is Jeff Sessions’ ill-considered appeal to St. Paul—the primary source for Christian theology—in a futile attempt to mute the national outcry about the Trump administration’s decision to abuse immigrant children as a strategy to discourage immigrants from seeking to enter the United States illegally.
Sessions’ appeal to the “clear and wise command” of Paul was a mixture of naivete, cynicism, manipulation, and pseudo-Christian nonsense. The passage Sessions invoked comes from a letter that Paul wrote to a small congregation of Christians in Rome in the first century. He told his readers that they should all be “subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Paul describes the governing authorities as “God’s servants” and commands submission to them as a “matter of conscience.”
This passage has been a cornucopia of confusion for centuries and, taken out of context, has been used by Christians to rationalize an astonishing range of offensive things, from the violent suppression of peasant revolts in sixteenth-century Germany to slavery in the American South. Now we find the attorney-general appealing to Trump’s white evangelical base to accept the abuse of children on our southern border on the grounds that God-ordained authorities are simply carrying out the law.
Evangelicals are far from monolithic theologically but, as a group, they have traditionally downplayed the importance of scholarship in understanding their faith, believing that God intended the Bible—which they view as inerrant—to be understood by a simple reading without the need for complex considerations of original languages, audience, and cultural context. This view of Scripture promotes “proof-texting”—the practice of lifting a short passage, often a single verse, from its context and using it to address an issue that would utterly baffle the original writer.
An astonishing 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, and continue in their loyalty, despite Trump being the most overtly unchristian president in modern US history. They are the single largest religious group in America, at 17% of the population in 2016, down from 23% in 2006. Non-white evangelicals make up another 8% or so—a percentage that is increasing. Most of them voted against Trump.
Sessions was speaking language all too familiar to evangelicals in his simplistic decontextualized invocation of Paul’s admonition to obey authority.
The apostle Paul—one of the most brilliant and well-educated writers of his time and the author of much of the New Testament—cannot possibly have been suggesting that “all governing authorities, in all times, regardless of their policies, are ordained of God and should be obeyed.” No serious biblical scholar believes this, and a careful reading of Paul in context rules out Sessions’ interpretation, which is far from new. And, to my knowledge, no Christian in history has ever promoted this interpretation of Paul in the abstract, as a general principle. What has happened in practice, however, is that Christians appeal to this isolated verse when they need to defend an unjust law or questionable practice from attacks by progressive Christians who are arguing from a more holistic and informed perspective.
Martin Luther, to take one famous example, invoked Paul to justify the violent suppression of rebellious peasants who were pushing back against exploitive leaders in the sixteenth century; John Calvin, in remarkable contrast, highlighted an adjacent passage making the opposite point, where Paul states that legitimate authorities “hold no terror for those who do right.” Calvin argued that authoritarian rulers who terrorized their subjects—like the German leaders abusing Luther’s peasants— were thus illegitimate and justly opposed. Eighteenth century British loyalists quoted Paul to discourage the colonial rebellion against King George—after all, he was the king by divine decree! Rebels quoted Paul in their counterargument that British rule was illegitimate. Slaveholders and abolitionists both used these passages to make their diametrically opposed cases.
So what point was Paul making? Nobody knows. He may have been addressing an issue specific to his audience in Rome, suggesting restraint on the part of some unruly Christians—in which case the passage may have no meaning beyond that context. A great many things in the Bible are so contextual that they are simply not relevant today. There are prohibitions against eating shellfish, women speaking in church or going without head-coverings. The Israelites were forbidden to wear cloth sewn from more than one type of fabric, eat pork, or get tattoos. Some scholars think Paul suspected that Roman authorities would read his letter en route to delivery and the passage was for their eyes, to assuage concerns that the emerging Christian religion might pose a threat to the state. Some scholars believe that Paul did not even write this passage, and it was inserted later.
What we do know is that the controversial passage cannot possibly mean what Sessions presumably wanted it to mean—that Christians should tolerate widespread abuse of children simply because the abuse was at the hands of a duly elected government. Assuming Sessions believed his own argument—and I wonder about that—he was simply engaging in the common practice of reading personal values and beliefs into holy books, rather than being guided by the values and beliefs that come out of the book.
America’s holy book, the Bible, is an interpretive nightmare, which is why the denominations that try to follow it most closely—like Baptists—are constantly splintering over disagreements about what it means (there are hundreds of Baptist denominations). The Bible is a compilation of dozens of books, written in several languages, over many centuries, by very different people, writing to very different audiences, reflecting a great diversity of worldviews, and making a great many different points. A startling variety of things can be—and have been—defended by invoking the Bible. And often both sides of a dispute are quoting the Bible.
Sessions has been excoriated for his opportunistic appeal to Paul. His appeal, curiously, even runs counter to the beliefs of his own denomination, the United Methodists, where he is an active member. In fact the United Methodists are presently dealing with formal “church charges” that hundreds of Methodist leaders and laity have made against Sessions. He is accused of “child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination.” His interpretation of Paul is “contrary to the established standards of doctrines” of the United Methodist Church. The original letter that launched the investigation says “we deeply hope for a reconciling process that will help this long-time member of our connection step back from his harmful actions and work to repair the damage he is currently causing to immigrants, particularly children and families.” Sessions may be ejected from his denomination, unless he breaks rank with Trump over the treatment of immigrants.
This sordid episode highlights America’s schizophrenic religious personality and explains why Trump’s evangelical base remains faithful to him, despite his unchristian treatment of immigrants. The Trump evangelicals belong to a largely fundamentalist movement that emerged a century ago when traditional protestant Christians became alarmed about religious modernity, which was creeping into the established “mainline” denominations—the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Anglicans. Religious modernity, to oversimplify, championed the social gospel of “loving one’s neighbor” and reaching out to “the least of these,” rather than traditional doctrines and beliefs like the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and miracles—beliefs that science and biblical scholarship were calling into question.
Defining itself over and against religious modernity, fundamentalism all but abandoned the social gospel as a watered down pseudo-Christianity. In time, the social gospel and even the phrase “social justice” came to be viewed with suspicion and hostility. Glenn Beck told his listeners that if they found the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on their church Web site, they should leave their church “as fast as you can.”
We are now at a point where America’s white evangelicals—as a group, with noted exceptions like Jim Wallis—simply have no idea how to relate their faith to issues of social justice. Most of them think social justice reeks of “leftism,” and cheer every time Trump ridicules it. Evangelicals would be baffled by a question about the moral and theological status of the people seeking entry to the US on our southern border. There exists no body of knowledge one could label “evangelical social teaching,” in contrast to the well-developed “Catholic social teaching,” that is quite clear on how we should respond to the desperate souls on our border.
Jeff Sessions stands astride this uniquely American theological divide. As Trump’s attorney general, he must pander to white evangelicals, emphasizing “law-and-order politics” over social justice, abusing brown children in the service of an agenda far removed from traditional Christianity. As a leader in the United Methodist Church, however, he must surely know better—and he may be forced to choose between his denomination or the policies of Donald Trump. His time of tribulation—a favored evangelical phrase—is just beginning.
About the Author
Karl Giberson is Professor of Science & Religion at Stonehill College and author of Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World. Follow him on Twitter at @gibersok and visit his website.