On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border by referencing the New Testament. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13,” Sessions said, “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders summed up the same idea: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”
Those remarks by Sessions were aimed at what he called “our church friends”—religious leaders who had criticized the policy of breaking up families. Sessions seemed to be speaking both as a public official and as an insider to Christianity. By invoking Romans 13, Sessions was bringing to bear one of the most significant biblical passages in American history, but one which is a “two-edged sword” of conflicting interpretations—and the interpretation that Sessions chose to stress has a troubling history.
Romans 13 is significant to American history because it played a critical role in the American Revolution. Loyalists who favored obedience to King and Parliament quoted Romans 13 for obvious reasons. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” the text read in the language of the time. A phrase later on in the passage has entered the English language: “The powers that be are ordained of God.” Law, order, and loyalty to an imperial government were all bound up in that phrase.
But surprisingly, political and religious leaders who favored the American Revolution were even more eager to quote Romans 13. Their reasoning turned on the justification that Paul gave for obeying government. Sessions said that government was created “for the purpose of order,” but Revolutionary clergy quoted Paul directly: “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” In a study of how the Bible was used in the American Revolution, the historian James Byrd argues that “American patriots” rejected against the notion that Romans 13 required unconditional obedience. Instead, he wrote, they preached from the text “to deny that Paul gave kings the right to be tyrants.” As the Anglican priest and regimental chaplain David Griffith said in a sermon on Romans 13, Paul “never meant … to give sanction to the crimes of wicked and despotic men.”