Romans 13: Teach the controversy!

Jim Crow-era courthouse in North Carolina.

“Well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense.” ― Lewis Carroll, #Romans13Syllabus

As Christians, Jews, atheists and others speak out about the United States Attorney General’s use of Romans 13 to justify separating children from their parents for the benefit of “our church friends,” Lincoln Mullen (assistant professor of history at George Mason University) provides some important historical context on how this Biblical passage was invoked and critiqued in political disputes during both the American Revolution and the Southern Insurrection of the 1860s. Teach the controversy!

Lincoln Mullen on the significance of Romans 13 in American history.

Of course, since as least the 1920s, economic arguments have been more in vogue than Biblical arguments to oppose immigration to our land of immigrants. Walter Ney Keener (presumably) warned readers of the Durham Morning Herald in 1920 of “[o]ne senator [who]advocates admission of immigrants for the purpose of taking care of the labor shortage.” Bemoaning how “[t]oo much of our labor troubles now are due to the presence of foreign labor,” Walter was worried about the same “poor stock” of eastern and southern European Jewish and Catholic immigrants that was bothering Francis Bellamy when he wrote our original (godless) Pledge of Allegiance.

However, economic arguments against immigration, also common today, almost always fail when you actually look at the evidence instead of the anecdotes and political rhetoric. As Matthew Bulger (Legislative Director for the American Humanist Association) noted a few years ago:

“[I]mmigrants contribute $37 billion per year to the economy, and areas with high levels of immigrants often experience very high levels of economic growth when compared to their less immigrant friendly neighbors. Immigrants have also helped to keep Social Security solvent by contributing hundreds of billions of dollars to the Social Security Trust Fund, a program which many immigrants aren’t able to even use because of their legal status.”

Romans 13 was also invoked in the 1920s to justify Prohibition and the death penalty, in addition to nativism. In 1923, Rev. C. L. Garrison warned the congregation at Jefferson Avenue Christian Church that “[t]hose who follow blind guides will end in the ditch,” but he concluded his sermon by urging the congregation to obey Prohibition — because “whosoever therefore resisteth the law, resisteth the ordinances of God” (The Bee in Danville, VA., 1923). And in 1924, the Chicago Lutheran conference of the Missouri Synod issued a statement quoting Romans 13 (among other verses) to support the death penalty (The Evening Times in Sayre, PA., 1924).

In the 1930s, some prominent German theologians distinguished between “benevolent and wayward masters” and “healthy and deformed orders” but still used Romans 13 to pledge their allegiance to “every authority even if deformed, as a tool of divine preservation.” One notable statement addressed to the National Socialist Protestant Pastor’s League, the Ansbacher Ratschlag, thanked God “that he has given to our Volk in its time of need the Führer as a ‘pious and faithful sovereign’” (Ericksen, 1985).

But as the Department of Health and Human Services starts interring refuge children in tent cities currently experiencing 100-to-105-degree high temperatures, our current Commander in Chief claims he hates his Administration’s new policy, and that we can change it tonight if only the party not in power would act to change the law. So much for ethics, economic evidence, and political reality. How about common human decency?

Snip: Arizona Republic (Feb. 12, 1924) — via

Without getting into the hermeneutics of #Romans13 even Franklin Graham has denounced this policy of separation as “disgraceful,” adding, “It’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.” And Sessions’s own (reunited) United Methodist church is calling it “unsound, a flawed interpretation, and a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel.” But the President of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagles still sees it as “part of the political work that has to be done” (NPR, June 17), and Rick Santorum worries about the flood gates opening if we abandon this powerful deterrent (CNN, June 17).

So, how about another Bible verse?

Or two…

Some say no, and with serious concerns about references to humans as fly larva (or the more generic “animals”) I’m inclined to agree about the need to consult other texts here…

But others say yes to a Biblical frame, so here’s some advice for “our church friends”…

And some solace from “our mosque friends”…

And before hoisting a flag (on either side of the debate, or to abstain from the Biblical frame), check out my eBook for some related American history…

Only $0.99 via Amazon Kindle.

Revision history: Last updated June 17 — added quotes from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagles president and Rick Santorum, David Niose piece in Psychology Today.



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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner


Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.