In recent weeks and months, a number of prominent evangelical leaders associated with President Donald Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council, as well as members of Trump’s administration, have used Biblical precedent to defend Trump’s policy of family separation at the US-Mexico border.
Few, however, have been as brazen as Paula White, the prosperity gospel preacher (and Trump’s right-hand woman) who told the right-leaning faith-based Christian Broadcasting Network that Jesus could not have broken any immigration laws during his family’s flight to Egypt because Jesus, who was without sin, could not therefore have broken the law.
White spent the interview defending Trump on his policy of family separation, calling the camps in which migrant children are being detained “amazing.” She argued for the Biblical precedent of family separation. “I think so many people have taken biblical scriptures out of context on this, to say stuff like, ‘Well, Jesus was a refugee,’” White told the network. She added, “Yes, [Jesus] did live in Egypt for three-and-a-half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah.”
White is referring to a part of the Biblical narrative recounted in the gospel of Matthew, as well as some books of Biblical Apocrypha. According to tradition, the King of Judea at the time of Jesus’s birth, Herod — fearful of a premonition that another “king of the Jews” has been born — slaughters all new infant boys in the area. Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus find refuge from Herod’s wrath in Egypt, returning only after Herod’s death.
The story, along with repeated injunctions to care for the oppressed, the poor, refugees, and other vulnerable and displaced persons throughout the Bible (such as Isaiah 10, Leviticus 19:33–34; Jeremiah 7:5–7; Ezekiel 47:22; and Zechariah 7:9–10), have been used by a number of Christian public figures to criticize the Trump administration’s position toward refugees. An Indianapolis church even went viral for an art piece depicting Nativity figures of the Holy Family trapped in a cage meant to evoke the fenced-in areas in which migrant children are currently being kept.
In recent weeks, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in favor of the dignity of refugees, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has condemned family separation, and the United Methodist Church has initiated formal expulsion proceedings against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his role in the family separation crisis.
White did not mention that Jesus was ultimately executed by Judean colonial authorities for perceived political insurrection.
This is not the first time that White has argued for the inalienable, divinely ordained precedence of GOP government authority, nor used the Bible to justify a broad view of government intervention. Last year, she made headlines for telling an interviewer that Trump was “raised up by God.” (She later walked back her comments under direct questioning, declaring that God chooses every human leader.)
More broadly, Trump’s evangelical allies frequently use the language of Christian nationalism to code Trump as a divinely chosen figure whose will is therefore no less divinely sanctioned, comparing him to such Biblical figures as King Cyrus and Queen Esther.
Her colleague on the evangelical advisory board, Robert Jeffress, has likewise frequently invoked Romans 13 to defend Trump’s ability to do “whatever” in terms of foreign policy disputes, and frequently mixes pro-Trump politics and rally-style rhetoric into his church services at First Baptist Dallas.
White’s language reflects a broader and deeply troubling trend on the part of white Christian evangelicals, a full 36 percent of whom support the family separation policy as of late June.
For many, Christian observance and Christian religiosity are deeply intertwined with a kind of knee-jerk authoritarianism. As Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux commented on FiveThirtyEight earlier this month about a 2015 Pew study that found evangelicals overwhelmingly privilege following “the rules” when it comes to immigration issues, “deference to law and order is fundamental to the way evangelicals think about immigration policy.”
The idea of laws being inflexible and authority being absolute — the kind of mentality suggested by the Trump administration’s devotion to one interpretation of Romans 13 — is central to the conflation of GOP party politics and white evangelicalism.
Even when it doesn’t hold up to Biblical scrutiny.