I hadn’t been paying attention to the news, so I was legitimately shocked when I saw this headline on CNN: “What does the Bible verse Jeff Sessions quoted really mean?” To be candid, I’m suspicious about any news outlet offering authoritative interpretations of the Bible.
So I caught up on all the drama. Long story short, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 in defending US policy in enforcing laws against illegal border crossing Mexico. I won’t take time now to comment on the policy and it’s implementation.
As far as the quote itself, contrary to many commentators, Sessions got it pretty much right. He used the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-7 to exhort people to obey the laws of the land. I would quickly concede that the issues related to the specific policy he was defending are complicated and leave it at that.
My question is this: should a United States government official, speaking from a podium emblazoned with the seal of the United States of America, exhort people to obey the Word of God? My personal take is he or she should not. Let me offer two reasons why and answer a few objections.
Reasons Why the United States Government Should Not Exhort People to Obey the Bible
Freedom of Religion
The third article of the Bill of Rights makes this principle very clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” A logical corollary of this principle is that the government should not dictate that the population adhere to a particular religion. When the United States government uses the Bible as the basis of a call to submit to the government, it does just that. I believe that Biblical Christianity is the only true religion, but what if the government quoted another religion or used another authoritative text?
The Primacy of the Church in Biblical Interpretation
In 1 Timothy 3:15 the Apostle Paul describes the church as “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” It is the responsibility of church leaders to teach and interpret the Bible. God calls church members to spread the message of the Bible to others at appropriate times and invite people to respond to the gospel. In the Bible, teaching sound doctrine, doing evangelism, and shepherding God’s people are the responsibility of the church, not the government.
Isn’t America Founded on the Bible?
Not exactly. The worldview and religious convictions of our founding fathers is best described as theistic rationalism— “a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element” (Gregg Frazer, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, 14). The founders purposefully did not quote from the Bible in our founding documents. Although they thought in ways consistent with a broadly Judeo-Christian worldview, they did not include any Trinitarian creed in those documents nor did they ever reference Jesus Christ. Their deism and affirmation of a divine creator are hardly distinctively Christian beliefs.
This doesn’t change the fact that the culture of the British colonies that became the United States of America was a majority Christian culture. We can be thankful that it was, but that’s different than saying the founders used the Bible explicitly as the authoritative basis for our government. The negative results of intermixing religion and government in Europe had taught the founders that separation of church and state is a wise practice and is in the best interest of both parties. Let the government be the government.
Isn’t quoting the Bible always good?
Not exactly. On this point I am concerned about accuracy and tone. On the accuracy issue, the danger comes in misquoting or misapplying the Bible. On the tone issue, there’s a huge difference between an illustrative quote versus a direct call to obey the Bible. Most presidents have used Bible quotations in their speeches at one time or another, but I would guess never with a call for all Americans to submit to the Bible. Usually it’s a nice literary touch that connects with many Americans. In this case, exhortation is best left to the pulpit, not the government’s podium.
I have no knowledge of Jeff Sessions’ personal religious views. If he is a Christian, I think it would be great for him to call people to consider obeying the government in light of Romans 13:1-7 in personal conversation, or in a church service, or at an evangelistic event, or even as a speaker at a conference on how the church and government should interact. But when a government official is standing behind that podium, they should defend policy on the basis of the policy itself. In other words, let the church be the church.