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Methodists drop church charges against Jeff Sessions over family separation policy

Church leadership says “political action is not personal conduct.”

Attorney Gen. Sessions And Deputy Attn. Gen. Rosenstein Speak On Religious Freedom At Justice Dept. Religious Liberty Summit
Attorney General Jeff Sessions (L) and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein attend the Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice on July 30, 2018, in Washington, DC. 
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The leadership of the United Methodist Church dropped four formal charges lodged against Attorney General Jeff Sessions by more than 600 pastors and parishioners for his role in defending the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

According to District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Debora Bishop of Mobile, Alabama, where Sessions is a church member, the charges against Sessions are not applicable because he acted on behalf of a government, not in his capacity as a private citizen.

The statement was issued July 30 but only shared with the news media this week, when a Department of Justice spokesperson sent it to the Washington Times. In it, Bishop said, “A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy. In this matter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was carrying out the official policy of the President and/or the United States Department of Justice. It was not an individual act.”

David Graves, the resident bishop of the Alabama-West Florida region, which oversees the Mobile region, also issued a statement agreeing with Bishop’s decision and reiterating her reasoning.

However, not all United Methodist leaders support Bishop’s decision. Jack Jenkins at Religion News Service reports that a number of high-profile UMC scholars and theologians are troubled by the logic that politicians are not to blame for carrying out an administration’s policies, or that following the orders of a political or military superior is sufficient to justify behavior that is in contravention of church law.

Rev. William B. Lawrence, a former president on the church’s judicial council, told Jenkins, “I do not follow the logic that grants someone, even the president of the United States, the right to [invoke] ‘superior orders’ with regard to church law.”

The United Methodist Church’s decision on Sessions raises wider questions

The case against Sessions nevertheless raises wider questions for politicians across the religious spectrum. To what extent should religious organizations hold their politician members accountable for legislative positions they take on issues that defy their church’s perspective? To what extent should political stances — be they on immigration, income inequality, abortion, or capital punishment — be held by religious institutions to the same, or higher, standards than personal or private behavior?

It’s a debate more common in the Catholic Church where, for example, politicians who support abortion rights — despite the Catholic Church’s belief that life begins at conception — are, at times, denied communion for their stance, a decision that generally rests in the hands of that politician’s parish priest. (No American politician has ever been excommunicated by the Catholic Church for their political stance.)

It’s a question that may become more pressing in the wake of Pope Francis’s recent authorization of changes to the main Catholic teaching document, the Catechism, now deeming the death penalty “inadmissible.” Catholic politicians or legislators who support the death penalty may find themselves under increased scrutiny.

The complaint against Sessions included charges of child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, and the dissemination of false doctrine — the latter charge a reference to his use of the Bible verse Romans 13 to advocate for submission to government authority. Sessions faced the possibility of an ecclesiastical trial and, ultimately, expulsion from the church.

Sessions’s use of Romans 13 further blurred the lines between the private, religious sphere and the political arena. For now, the United Methodist Church has, by arguing that public and private life should be judged differently, seemingly chosen to keep the two distinct.

But as (Christian) religion and politics become increasingly intertwined in the current political climate, it remains to be seen to what extent religious institutions will attempt to use that influence to challenge the Trump administration.

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