Some religious coalitions are opposing Senator Jeff Sessions as appointee for Attorney General by alleging he is “racist.” One group is an ad hoc sign-on letter of clerics, academics and activists who’ve no collective ecclesial authority. Another is the National Council of Churches, whose membership of several dozen communions makes it an ecclesial body, if a highly diminished one compared to its more prominent status of 30 or more years ago.
I first met Jeff Sessions when he was a delegate to the 1996 United Methodist General Conference, before his election to the Senate later that year. Over the years we’ve met regularly to discuss church affairs. He’s a lifelong United Methodist, very committed to the denomination and has maintained friendships with many clergy and bishops, among others. Many times over the years he has helped delegates from Africa get USA visas to attend the quadrennial governing convention for the USA-based but increasingly global denomination.
Often delegates in the Congo or Nigeria or elsewhere were rejected by USA embassies and consulates who were suspicious of their travel purpose. The delegates often didn’t speak English, didn’t know how to fully explain their travel purpose to busy officials, and had to travel great distances across sometimes days to reach the embassies or consulates, on trips costing hundreds of dollars they didn’t have and for which the church didn’t fully if at all reimburse them. Sometimes Senator Sessions personally phoned embassies and consulates. Others times his staff sent messages. It was very helpful for these African delegates to have a USA Senator advocate for their fair treatment as legitimately invited guests to the USA. In 2007 I escorted a visiting Congolese bishop and wife to visit the Senator for a very enjoyable chat about the growing church in Africa.
Senator Sessions doesn’t seem to be a “respecter of persons,” to use the scriptural phrase, and seems quite egalitarian in his regard for people. Once I met a young black woman who had briefly worked on his staff. She recalled he had charmingly taken her to lunch at the Senate dining room. She was not, to my knowledge, from a prominent family or politically influential. There was no advantage for the Senator other than the joy of encouraging a young person.
Charging Senator Sessions with racism is absurd. The allegation is for today what charges of communism were 65 years ago. Racism is the unacceptable sin in American public life, for which we should be grateful, but the charge of it has become a tool of defamation. Exaggeration, slander and histrionics are inevitable in politics. Religious officials and groups should have higher aspirations.
The National Council of Churches and its predecessor, starting a century ago, were always theologically and politically liberal. Until radicalized in the 1960s it embodied the historic Mainline Protestant role of mediating American political discourse in a typically stately, elevating and unifying fashion. It later became acerbic, dogmatic, and sanctimoniously partisan, which as much as the demographic implosion of its churches contributed to its massive shrinkage in budget, staff, resources, influence and national attention.
Several days ago I tweeted in response to the NCC’s “racism” charge against Sessions that “sweeping political hystrionics from ecclesial bodies are rarely effective or faithful Christian social witness.” A Duke Divinity School student responded that “bold proclamations have always been a part of biblical witness” and that I should consider the Book of Amos.
The Hebrew prophets were indeed bold unto martyrdom as they challenged their society to repent of sins and reconcile with God. Their call to social holiness is broadly inspirational for every society. But should political exertions fully model themselves on the prophetic example of God’s sanctified prophet of truth versus the false prophets of Baal and other dark forces?
What temporal political voice should fully claim God’s authority? And should political opponents be regarded as entirely corrupt and demonic? Under this paradigm, how can there be debate, civility, mutual respect, or democracy itself? Such spiritual weaponization of politics only leads to further polarization. Historically it ultimately fuels violence and an ideological absolutization inclined to intolerance, repression, and dictatorship.
A society aspiring to human dignity and informed by a comprehensive biblical ethic recognizes that no political force fully speaks for God, hence there should be restraint in rhetoric and attitude, especially by religious voices. Politics is usually more about competing interests and prudential judgments than about absolute good versus evil.
Religious political opponents of Senator Sessions or the appointees of any administration should shun cavalier demonization that may temporarily gratify but whose long term effect will corrode public life. And church bodies like the NCC that speak politically should heed their vocation to advocate the common good achieved through good will, temperance and mutual respect.