In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass named the true religion of America. America was not a Christian nation, he wrote, because it followed the gospel of “the slaveholding religion.” In describing “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land,” he concluded that there was “no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”
Whether or not President Donald Trump realizes it, Douglass is no longer with us. But the events of this week would not surprise the man who wrote that to call America a Christian nation was “the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.” This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cited the Bible to justify the unjustifiable: a Trump-approved immigration policy of ripping children from their parents. In fact, in doing so, Sessions invoked Romans 13, which is the exact same argument that slaveholders and sympathetic clerics used, in Douglass’ day, to justify slavery.
While there has been an outcry from many quarters, it is worth remembering that separating and destroying families is American history. White evangelicals supported slavery; Andrew Jackson, Trump’s hero, was responsible for the Trail of Tears and the forced march of the Cherokee; Japanese internment was used to indoctrinate prisoners into Christianity.
And now, separating and destroying families is our American present. This is America; this has always been America. This reprehensible moment in America is not an anomaly, but a continuation of the intertwining of race, nation and slaveholding Christianity. President Trump’s administration and his evangelical supporters insist that we adhere to their pernicious interpretations of scripture, as so many American theocrats have done before them.
“This reprehensible moment in America is not an anomaly, but a continuation of the intertwining of race, nation and slaveholding Christianity.”
To Trump, Sessions, Huckabee Sanders and their supporters, separating children from their parents at the border, even at 4 months old, is not un-Christian. In fact, in their readings, it is the most Christian thing they could do. After all, these people threaten the purity of nation, race and belief. Scripture supports their subjugation. Bryan Fischer, formerly of the American Family Association has suggested that European settlers justifiably removed Native Americans from their land, while destroying their families, because Native Americans were immoral and did not embrace Christianity.
In this view of what America is and ought to be, immigrants are not people, but chattel. How else to explain the cruelty being inflicted on these desperate people? In order to allow it, to endorse it, one must imagine their families to be less than real, their humanity to be less than complete. The only families that are worth defending, according to this interpretation of scripture, are white American Christian families. Any other families, especially immigrant families, are not worthy of keeping together. So much for the party of “family values.”
And in this view, immigrants are irresponsible and incapable of caring for their children because they brought them to America. After all, “they are the ones who broke the law,” Sessions has said. “They are the ones who endangered their children with this trek.”
Are these negligent criminals really fit to parent? The government is more capable of taking care of these immigrant children than their own parents are. So much for the party of “limited government.”
Christians in America, especially evangelicals, have supported all of these actions, and many others that contradict the teachings of Christ: cutting food stamps, lying, and denigrating the poor and helpless in society. Evangelical deference to authority and fealty to Trump has resulted in a potent, dangerous rise of theocratic fascism for which American religious leaders simply are not prepared. While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptists make statements of concern about family separation, the Department of Health and Human Services is moving to construct a temporary site in Tornillo, Texas, to house unaccompanied minor children.
As Douglass told us a century and a half ago, this is not what Christianity looks like. This is an Americanized, nationalistic Christianity that promotes white families over and against brown families, black families and other families that do not conform and embrace their biblical worldview. It has justified keeping people in chains, slaughtered, interred, persecuted and separated from families. It hides behind Bible verses and proof-texting to affirm white supremacy, while denying the humanity of everyone else.
Sessions may quote Romans 13 as a way to support his harsh immigration policies, but later in the same passage, the law is summed up as one rule: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Sessions is ripping his neighbors’ families apart and insisting the Bible gives him the authority. This is America.
Anthea Butler is associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.