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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Honorable mention — Grad student essay contest: James Bingaman

The bible verse that allows governments to do as they please

FFRF awarded James $200.

James Bingaman

By James Bingaman

Romans 13 states the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” This passage has been used to defend demonstrably cruel and horrific policies enacted by governments across history. You can see why governments in power would use such a quote. It takes the onus off of them and puts it on a higher power.

During the American Revolution, Romans 13 was “the most commonly cited biblical text” used by loyalists as the revolution itself did not “honor the king.” Jump forward almost 100 years and you’ll see defenders of slavery use this same justification for the Fugitive Slave Act. In Germany, Lutheran churches used Romans 13 to justify their collaboration with the Nazi regime. In South Africa, the white Dutch Reformed Church defended apartheid by quoting scripture. Individuals who have instituted unpopular or controversial policies used this bible verse in the hopes of silencing criticism.

In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 to defend the Trump administration’s controversial zero-tolerance immigration policy. When Sessions was criticized for the use of this biblical passage, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded that she was not aware of what Sessions was referring to, but added that it is “biblical for a government to enforce the law.” This defense further deepens the idea that the bible is relevant in governing. One of the main criticisms of Sessions’ use of this quote was that it was cherry-picked. In fact, those criticizing Sessions point to Romans 13:8, which states that “love is the fulfillment of the law.” The fact that critics then invoked what they deemed as “good” parts of the bible further shows the pervasive influence that religion has on society.

This appeal to authority, while a fallacy, plays on one of Aristotle’s fundamental aspects of persuasion: ethos. Ethos is a method of persuasion in which the speaker attempts to persuade an audience by demonstrating their own credibility. There are a few ways in which this works. The first of these is intrinsic credibility. This means the credibility comes from the speaker themselves. The second of these is borrowed credibility. This credibility usually comes from a cited source. The final kind of credibility is what has been described as the “oh, that makes sense” credibility. This is often a reinforcing statement based on the audience’s beliefs or experiences. In people’s minds, there is no greater authority than God, so of course they will be persuaded by it. Sessions has neither the credibility himself nor sources to back up his administration’s immigration policy, so he tried to gain favor by appealing to the bible — something the majority of Americans believe in. But, as authors M. McIntyre and J. McKee state in their book Ethos, “just because something sounds right to you or makes you feel good about what you believe does not mean that it is true.” So, dissenters, don’t call them out by citing scripture; call them out for the errors in their reasoning.

As the rise of nonreligious affiliation grows among younger generations, and as these younger generations move into positions of power, we will start to see a transition from ethos predicated on already established beliefs to ethos based on intrinsic knowledge. As we have seen, if policies are not based on science and reason, we open ourselves up to erroneous and disastrous laws intended to persecute, silence and demean minorities, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants and a slew of other ostracized groups.

James, 26, is from Chandler, Ariz., and attends the University of Delaware, where he is working toward a PhD in media and communication. He is a dual citizen who moved from Australia to the United States in 2010 to play collegiate baseball. He graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in communication studies. In 2018, James graduated from Texas Tech University with an master’s degree in mass communications.