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The racist history of the Bible verse the White House uses to justify separating families

Romans 13 has long been incorrectly used to defend government oppression.

Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border John Moore/Getty Images

The White House used a passage from the Bible on Thursday to justify the practice of separating migrant children from their families at the American border.

“Illegal entry into the United States is a crime, as it should be,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. 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 them for the purpose of order.”

Later, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended Sessions’s comments, telling reporters at a press previewing, “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law, that is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,” though she declined to cite specifics.

The use of the passage in Romans 13 — part of a collection of letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to early Christian church communities in order to help standardize early elements of Christian practice in the first decades after Jesus’s death — is an unsettling one. And it has a long and troubling legacy in American political history.

The original context of Romans 13 is key

The verse reads, in the New Revised Standard Version translation, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

According to many biblical scholars, it was written to refer specifically to the Judeo-Christian context of the Pauline early church. Writer and theologian Diana Butler Bass provided a comprehensive overview of the verse’s original context on Twitter. Throughout the first century AD, a number of nationalist Jewish movements emerged throughout the (Roman-occupied) Middle East. (In 66-70 AD, for example, the failure of the first Jewish revolt led to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.)

By the time Paul was writing his letters to the Romans (in the AD 50s, although the exact date is uncertain), the Roman Christian community was largely composed of gentiles, although it still contained many Jews as well. It appears that, in part, Paul was attempting to dissuade nationalist or revolutionary Jewish impulses that might have threatened the overall unity of the joint Jewish-Gentile Christian community.

As prominent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues, the fact that Paul felt the need to insert the verses of Romans 13 into his argument at all suggests that he might have been doing so as a corrective, because Paul’s wider body of work might have been seen to encourage government insurrection. Writes Wright, in a 2002 piece about the history of Romans 13 more generally:

Some might have heard [Paul’s] teaching to imply that the church was to ... [owe] allegiance to no one except God and therefore under obligation to rebel violently against human rulers, and to refuse to pay taxes. The paragraph can therefore be seen, not as evidence that Paul would not have been saying anything subversive, but that he had been, and now needed to make clear what this did, and particularly what it did not, imply.

It’s vital to understand the contextual history of Romans 13 in order to understand that it is not a blanket statement about Christianity and government. Like all verses in the Bible — a diverse collection of texts written by a number of different authors over a period of centuries, and later collected and codified as a holy text — it must be read in context, and alongside other seemingly contradictory or diverging verses.

Alongside Romans 13, there are also plenty of Bible accounts that seem to advocate for or provide positive examples of civil disobedience — from the Hebrew midwives who refuse to execute Moses despite the Egyptian pharaoh’s dictates that all newborn boys be killed to the Apostle Paul’s own fate, which is recounted in the apocryphal Acts of Paul. He was martyred by Emperor Nero in Rome for holding publicly to his Christian faith.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that there are plenty of other Bible verses that prioritize and call for care for the poor, for strangers away from their homeland, and for children: verses that the Trump administration’s policy seems clearly to contravene. (Just a few: Isaiah 10, Leviticus 19:33–34; Jeremiah 7:5–7; Ezekiel 47:22; Zechariah 7:9–10.)

When it comes to Romans 13, therefore, it’s worth recognizing that its particular context — a teaching document by an early leader of the Christian community working out how to balance the political nature of early Christianity with a functioning, multiethnic early church — wasn’t necessarily designed to be applied more broadly.

Romans 13 has a long history in American politics

But Romans 13 has, indeed, been applied more broadly — frequently in American politics — when it comes to two particularly controversial social issues. The idea that Romans 13 should be taken as a blanket support of government has appeared as a common rhetorical trope twice before in American history, as Messiah College professor of religion John Fea (whose blog, the Way of Improvement, is a vital resource for understanding Christian nationalism today) points out.

The first instance where Romans 13 was used to legitimize government power was among Loyalists during the time of the American Revolution, who believed that the verse meant Americans should not break away from England.

The second, and far more significant, instance, was during the lead-up to the Civil War. Bethel University history professor and Patheos blogger Chris Gehrz provides a detailed rundown of the numerous ways the verse was interpreted by pro-slavery advocates both to perpetuate the institution of slavery and to advocate for, for example, the forcible return of fugitive slaves. Thus in 1855 did a Virginia newspaper editor express disappointment that Northern preachers were facilitating the escape of fugitives, saying: “The human law must accord with the Divine Law in order to render obedience a duty! They do not condescend to inform us who is to be the judge of that accordance. They dare not.”

(According to Gehrz’s data, references to Romans 13 in national media reached a notable peak in the early 1840s, right as debates over slavery were heating up.)

In both cases, Romans 13 has been used to justify the position that Christians are required to submit to government authority, regardless of their own moral positions.

The Trump administration frequently uses Romans 13 — and the Bible more generally — to promote a kind of Christian nationalism

This is not the first time someone in the inner circle of the Trump administration has used Romans 13 to justify Trump’s authority. Last summer, for example, pastor Robert Jeffress — one of the most influential members of Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council — cited Romans to say that God had given Trump the “authority to do whatever,” up to and including nuclear war, when it came to dealing with North Korea.

Another closely Trump-affiliated pastor, the prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, advocated that Trump was chosen by God more generally, emphasizing in interviews that Trump was “raised up by the hand of God” and those that opposed him were fighting God himself. (She later walked back her comments.)

In other words, this is nothing new. Trump, and the evangelical apparatus that supports him — from his evangelical advisory council to Pat Roberton’s Christian Broadcasting Network, whose journalistically dubious news programs doubled as theological propaganda for the Trump administration — has systematically promoted a theology that promotes political submission as an act of Christian duty. Evangelicals have compared Trump to the Persian biblical king Cyrus, and suggested (and even made films arguing) that his presidency was prophesied.

This latest use of Romans should be read — like Romans itself — within its historical context. The Trump administration is using a distinctive and reductionist biblical reading affiliated with slavery advocates and British Loyalists to prop up a wider strategy of religiously infused propaganda. In so doing, they’re strengthening the already ironclad relationship between GOP party politics and white evangelicalism — and promoting a Christian nationalist agenda that’s far more nationalist than Christian.