The United States is a country of paradoxes. We are a country of no official religion, to which many of our ancestors fled in order practice their religions freely, or not at all. We have a government built on the idea of the separation of church and state. And yet, to hear many of our elected officials speak, we are a Christian nation whose foundational text is not the Constitution, but the Bible.
As a person of faith, I find this type of religious justification for a political agenda profoundly disturbing for several reasons. This behavior assumes that the Bible is a unidimensional document that can only be read and interpreted one way. Moreover, “The Bible” means different things to different people. For Jews, it means the Hebrew Scriptures, commonly known as the Old Testament. For Christians, it means both the Old and the New Testaments. For Catholics, it also means the Apocryphal writings. But whatever is meant by “the Bible,” it is not and has never been the document upon which our government is supposed to be based.
At this moment, the administration in Washington continues its advancement of a radical anti-immigrant agenda, replacing the inhumane and cruel practice of immigrant family separation at the border with an executive order providing for indefinite family detention. Administration officials have provided a variety of justifications, excuses, or denials regarding their horrific treatment of these immigrant children. Perhaps the most egregious and outrageous defense of these policies came from officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who attempted to use the Bible to justify the perpetration of these atrocities. This behavior should be deeply offensive to every person of faith, and indeed to every American irrespective of religious belief.
This is far from the first time in American history that sacred texts have been used as cover for policies of dehumanization, indignity, and terror. Throughout our history, political leaders have cited the Bible to provide religious backing for the genocide of Native Americans, support for slavery, the curtailing of reproductive rights, legislating against civil rights, and restricting the freedoms of LGBTQ Americans.
While the use of religion in the service of oppression is nothing new in this country, it is — to put it in biblical terms– sinful. It is also cowardly. We are each allowed to believe what we want. That is the privilege that our constitution affords us as Americans. But we are not a religious country; we are a country founded on the precepts of equality and human rights, and we must not use faith as a shield against empathy and compassion toward our fellow human beings.
For me, one of the beautiful things about studying Bible is the many layers of interpretation that have been overlaid on the text over time. To read the Bible is an intellectual workout as much as a practice of faith, because it involves tugging on strands of the warp and woof in order to make sense of it – pull a little here and read it one way, pull a little there and read it another way. The minute we claim that the Bible means only one thing is to use the Bible, and thus faith itself, as a tool of tyranny. In fact, such an approach to religion is quite similar to that of the fundamentalists our government is fighting in far flung corners of the globe.
If we are going to read the Bible as a roadmap for contemporary life, then let’s read and reread the many, many instances in which we’re told to love and care for the stranger, because we were once strangers. Or let’s read the many, many instances in which the Bible exhorts us to care for the vulnerable, the widows and the orphans. Let’s use the text that provides these lessons as a guide for moral living, not an instrument to restrain and oppress the vulnerable.
Using the Bible and religion to legitimize the evil of separating parents and children who have come here seeking refuge is an attempt to make us numb to the horror being perpetrated in our names. Providing a faith-based reason for this cruel policy erases empathy and blinds us to its impact on others.
Faith leaders from all communities, those of us who devote our lives to the nuance and depth of scripture, have a moral obligation to call out these false claims and expose them for what they really are – a perversion of religion and faith, and ultimately a betrayal of what it is to be American. Let us call on all Americans to exercise our empathy and do all we can to reunite these families, decriminalize immigration, and stop the trauma being inflicted by these cruel and heartless policies. And let us demand that our elected officials stop using our sacred texts to justify them.