Put Them in Prison

Trump's latest target: Migrant children.

When US Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Paul, who wrote Philippians from prison, in support of imprisoning migrant children, the irony was hideous. Immediately after Sessions and White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders used the Bible to defend Trump Administration policy, the Internet was flooded with religious progressives — and some conservative clergy as well — providing counter-interpretations.

This small storm of conflicting understanding of scripture recapitulates one of the great dead ends of US rhetorical history. Bible-citing arguments over slavery long preceded the masses of dead corpses rotting on Civil War battlefields. As Richard Carwardine has convincingly argued, the war over Biblical interpretation established a religious foundation for America’s war over slavery.

The passage in the Book of Romans cited by Jeff Sessions has a long, interesting history in the Anglo-American literature of slavery. Quite unlike the biblical defence of the separation of migrant children from their parents that Sessions proferred, the antislavery movement used Romans 13 to challenge the authority of civil law.

British black abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, whose Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787) provided one of the earlier English-language antislavery arguments, employed the rhetoric of Romans 13 to demand rejection of slavery as an offence against divine law.

Using the language of evangelical Christianity that prevailed among early black abolitionists, Cugoano argued that the prophetic tradition demanded battle against slavery. To do otherwise would be “to remain alive in stubborn disobedience to the law and commandments of God”, failing which “we should in that case, be like Saul, cut off ourselves from the kingdom of his grace”.

The compliance Cugoano demanded was to a higher Biblical law. Cugoano was among antislavery advocates who joined what became a tradition of using Romans 13 to oppose human-enacted law and depict the antislavery cause as a means of complying with divine law. 19th Century African American writers such as David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Frederick Douglass repeatedly followed suit.

African diasporic antislavery thought and expression was bolder and quicker than that of US white society. It took white writers decades longer to catch up. In an 1853 discourse on Romans 13:1-7, James McLeod Wilson, an ardent antislavery Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, argued that, “a constitution that throws its shield over the crime of slave-holding, which puts, to nearly all intents and purposes, three millions of its population out of the pale of its protection, surrendering them to a bondage tenfold more bitter than that of Egypt, has need to tremble lest the doom of its oppressor overwhelm it”. He was only one example of a mid-nineteenth century writer who finally absorbed some of the black abolitionist spirit that Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano expressed sixty-odd years earlier.

19th Century social radicalism in the United States, which most frequently involved a corresponding religious radicalism, contended constantly with Romans 13. Since human government was by definition imperfect, it was necessary to argue about the principles upon which it might better emulate divine plans. Radicals such as socialist communitarian Adin Ballou and Christian pacificist literature from the American Peace Society and the New England Non-Resistance Society adopted a contingent reading of Romans 13. From their perspective, civil government could gain obedience only to the extent that it comported with their own selective readings of the bible.

Slaveholders had their own selective reading. They argued that these Bible passages endorsed slavery. Samuel Edwards Morse, brother of inventor Samuel Morse and son of geographer Jedediah Morse, cited Romans 13:1 as foundational to the view that “to deny, in Virginia or Carolina, the right of the slaveholder to the power which the law of the state gives him to rule his negro slaves, is…truly a sin against the law of God…”

For slaveholders, the Bible provided entitlement to human property and Romans 13 underwrote civil authority that defended the institution of slavery.

When Northerners refused to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, Southern editorialists vigorously cited Romans to demand the law’s enforcement.

In between such opposed positions, Romans 13 also allowed many religious Christians to straddle the issue of slavery. On the one hand, they could deplore slavery and forbid church fellowship to slaveholders. At the same time, as with the German Baptist Brethren, they pointed to this biblical chapter to confirm their adherence to the law of the land and only prayed for the mitigation of slavery.

When the Civil War broke out, the Romans 13 shoe shifted to the other foot. Outraged Northern ministers cited Romans 13 to demand fidelity to the Union and constitutional government. Rebellion against the constitutional order in defence of slavery was defiance of God. Those who had previously rejected pro-slavery usages of this chapter defending obedience to civil law now raised it as a standard against the Confederacy.

According to the 1862 sermon of one pro-Union Congregationalist minister, William Gaylord of Massachusetts, referring to Romans 13:4, the task of the ministry was to rescue the nation’s flag from the “foul hands of traitors” and call for restoration of state authority through acts of divine love manifested by human self-sacrifice on the battlefield. Interpretations depended on who had power in federal government, pro-slavery or antislavery forces.

Biblical arguments over Romans 13 inevitably involve selective readings and about-faces. That raises the question of why US society is reverting to a form of public religious argument that has proved itself historically unsatisfactory, unstable, and unsuited to resolving policy questions? It is only in part because this derives from the conservative, white-supremacist, evangelical Christian culture that Jeff Sessions embodies. More, it gives Sessions far too much credit as a thinker to suggest this is due to the resurgence of once-discredited natural law theory.

A more straightforward explanation is that Romans 13 is where some Christians go when searching for argumentative authority about who can claim divine sanction for or against the state. This entails a follow-up question: why should we need or claim New Testament-based sanction for or against the state? Either represents a Christian theocratic claim on secular government. It offends against religious freedom and a diversity of creeds in a democratic society. The Methodist church has condemned Sessions for his use of Romans 13 but even this condemnation turns public policy into a theological dispute.

Bible arguments did nothing to resolve the issue of slavery. Neither will they provide fair, humane, and caring treatment for migrants and their children.

Photograph courtesy of Celso Flores. Published under a Creative Commons license.