Written by Don Byrd

Like many Americans, I have watched closely the recent stories highlighting our government’s separation of children from their parents at the border. Among the many responses, it has been heartening to see so many  leaders from so many faith perspectives making themselves heard on this situation. Speaking out on the issues of the day is a hallmark of our tradition of religious liberty. The church must be free, in the face of policies it views as unjust, to voice its prophetic witness. That is, after all, one of the reasons why we fight so hard to maintain a separation between church and state. As Gardner Taylor insisted, separation not only keeps church and state from being entangled in “the bear hug of the other,” it ensures that the church will have “swinging room.”

Unfortunately, some government officials, confronted by that prophetic voice, have attempted to use Scripture to question religious expressions of dissent. Attorney General Jeff Sessions admonished religious communities criticizing his policies this way:

Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families… 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….

I will leave for others the challenge of interpreting Romans 13. It cannot mean, however, that voices of faith must accept and be silent in the face of government policies they find immoral and unjust. If the logical outcome of our respective spiritual and theological journeys is that we must support all actions of government because “God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” then what are we doing here? What is the purpose of the religious liberty we champion? Why not just worship the government and its laws? 

The administration’s decision this past week to cite Scripture, not as a means of supporting its immigration policy but to discourage criticism from people of faith, runs contrary to our longstanding American tradition of prophetic dissent, and makes a mockery of the religious calling many of us feel to demand laws and institutions that ensure justice for all. (It’s worth noting that governments citing Romans 13 to squelch opposition amid controversy has a long tradition as well, and a troubling one.)

Regardless of your political persuasion, your views on immigration policy generally, or the practice of separating children from their parents specifically, people of faith in America need not submit to our government’s call for acceptance, nor abide our government’s use of Scripture to suggest that questioning their policies is tantamount to questioning God. That suggestion is both theologically dubious and profoundly un-American. Our freedom of conscience and our democracy are interlaced, and the ultimate governing authorities in America are the People.

Americans worship in countless diverse ways. We can and we should disagree about the meaning of Scripture, and debate which government policies are appropriate and just. But we do not worship the government or its laws. It is the government’s job to protect our religious liberty, not to encourage religious fealty to its edicts. 

Those of us who advocate for religious liberty insist on the institutional separation of church and state for a reason. The purpose of “swinging room” is to allow the church to take a swing when the moment demands it. If not now, when?