Logic not being the strong point of the Trump administration, it claims that it is not to blame for the separation of families at the border, and that a just God is pleased it is happening.
The first claim is a lie. Without the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, there would be no surge in detained children at overwhelmed facilities. And President Trump has incurred further responsibility by employing confused, frightened children as leverage in negotiations over a border wall. All of this is taking place as a direct result of Trump’s command to get tough at the border. And what shows toughness better than mistreating little boys and girls?
The second claim, made most prominently by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is that Romans 13 — a biblical passage written by the Apostle Paul urging everyone to be “subject to the governing authorities” — is an endorsement of the administration’s hard-line enforcement of immigration laws. Sessions is effectively claiming divine sanction for the idea that people who break laws may be punished and deterred by subjecting their children to mental anguish. This is cruelty defended by heresy.
The Bible, like a gun, is a dangerous thing in the hands of a bigot. Segregationists and autocrats throughout Western history have claimed that Romans 13 covers oppressive or unjust laws. But the centerpiece commitment of Christian social ethics is not order; it is justice. For a good introduction to the concept, Sessions might read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God,” King argued. “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” And how should justice be defined? “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
Trump’s immigration policy is a carnival of degradation. At one facility, hundreds of children have been confined (according to an Associated Press story) “in a series of cages created by metal fencing.” At another place (according to a Los Angeles Times report), “children were running away, screaming, throwing furniture and attempting suicide.” At a small shelter on the Texas border (according to The Washington Post), screaming toddlers were isolated from their parents and caregivers were “not allowed to touch the children.”
The controversy over family separation has accomplished at least one useful thing. It is an act of inhumanity by the Trump administration so gross — so rotting, worm-ridden and hair-covered — that many evangelical leaders have refused to swallow it. Even Franklin Graham, awakened momentarily from his ideological slumbers, has called the practice “disgraceful.”
This policy debate has also demonstrated the broad streak of extremism at the center of the Trump administration. “It was a simple decision by the administration,” explained presidential adviser Stephen Miller, “to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry.” Simple. Simple if you are untroubled by nagging empathy. Simple if you are hardened against the temptation of mercy. Simple if you have lost the ability to feel anger when abused children weep. One gets the impression that Miller, Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly regard the fears of migrant parents and the anguish of migrant children as evidence of a good day’s work.
This is a contagion. In a recent poll, a strong plurality of Republicans (46 percent) supported the policy of family separation at the border. They have been given permission for their worst instincts by the leader of their party — a party whose right flank is now held by the neo-Confederate protestors at Charlottesville.
Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a whole race or ethnicity by its worst members — say, rapists or criminals. It moves on to enforce generally applicable laws and rules that especially hurt a target group. Then, as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss.
The Bible, a rich and sprawling book, offers another angle on these matters. At one point in the New Testament, Jesus calls a child over and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Sometimes those who invoke God’s justice would do better to fear it.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.