Sessions and the fate of Herod

In case you missed it, Jeff Sessions defended his policy of seizing children at the border with the words, “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.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders then added: “I can say it is very biblical to enforce the law, that is repeated a number of times throughout the bible.”

She was right about that. Characters in the Bible do frequently enforce the law. For example,

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men (Matthew 2:16)

This was the governmental action that made Joseph, Mary, and Jesus into refugees who needed asylum in Egypt.

Herod’s fault was not that he obeyed the law, as Paul advised a small, powerless community to do in Romans 13. Herod’s problem was that he was the law, and he saw his status as the king as the guarantee that his discretionary decrees must be right.

This was a habit that didn’t end well for him:

Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.

And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. …

And when Herod had sought for [Peter], and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and there abode.

And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king’s country.

And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.

And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.

And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost. (Acts 12: 1-2, 20-23)

This situation also raises issues of church and state. The US government should not cite a biblical verse as justification for a policy, because that “establishes” one religion. Arguably, that means that a reporter shouldn’t ask Sarah Sanders whether the Bible justifies seizing children at the border. It’s an irrelevant question to direct at a representative of the US government. If Sanders is asked that question, her answer should be, “I speak for the White House, and we don’t address questions of religious doctrine.” Sessions shouldn’t cite Rom. 13 to justify his policy, even if that were a good reading of the Bible. Finally, I shouldn’t take his religious claim seriously enough to attempt to rebut it on religious grounds.

My view of church and state is a little less stringent than the above. Sessions cited Romans in response to an eloquent letter by members of his own religious community that denounced his policy on theological grounds. I think citizens are entitled to petition the government in religious language, and if an employee of the government disagrees with a theological claim, he or she may address it. Thus Sessions was not wrong to cite the Bible in the particular context he did, as a response to a religious petition directed at him. But his reading of the Bible opened him to theological charges of blasphemy and idolatry.

See also a plea to conservatives and why Donald Trump is anti-conservative.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.