The White House Bible Study group that influenced Trump’s family separation policy

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (C) and fellow members of President Donald Trump's cabinet bow their heads in prayer during an event to mark the National Day of Prayer in the Rose Garden at the White House May 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ignited a public theological debate last week when he used the Bible, specifically Romans 13, to justify the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border. He likely took his cues from the White House Bible Study (WHBS), a weekly Bible study for members of the president’s cabinet organized by Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries.

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, significant staff time and resources go into coordinating the Bible study every week. Documents also show that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who defended the policy during a press conference Monday, is heavily involved with the WHBS. In fact, she’s the only cabinet official whose direct email address appears on the electronic invitations to the WHBS.

The day before Sessions’ remarks last Thursday, the White House Bible Study held a meeting centered on “The Importance of Parenting and the Course of the Nation.” The first paragraphs discuss “obedience to a nation’s laws” and cite Proverbs 28:4 and Romans 1:32[2] . (There are a number of spelling and Bible citation errors in the packet, including “1 Corinthians 9:27a,” as well as Romans 1:32, which may be a typo intended to cite Romans 13:2, the chapter Sessions used to justify the separation policy.)

Screenshot, Capitol Ministries

The biblical parenting course advocates “corporeal [sic] punishment for wrong doing” because it “is replete throughout Scripture.” Biblical parenting requires that a parent dominate their child from a young age: “A parent must establish authority early on … This is done through spanking.” If you spare the rod, you spoil the child.

This bible-based course also encourages parents to break the will of their children so that they do not become “rebellious toward God.” So many people are rebellious today because “The child never learned the value and fruit of correction at a young age. No one ever broke his self-will and as a re­sult he carries around a rebellious spirit today.”

It’s easy to see how a Wednesday morning Trump cabinet discussion on punishing children and the importance of obeying the law may have given way to a public justification of a policy to rip children away from their parents. This seems even more likely given the pull Drollinger has in the Trump cabinet, as well as his history of authoring Bible study material that uses Christianity to justify punishing undocumented immigrants.

The preacher’s influence

Drollinger, a former basketball player with a Bachelor’s degree in geography, has no education or training in public service, public policy, government, or immigration policy. Despite his lack of experience, he has been given unprecedented access to the highest levels of government — far more than any lobbyist. While his work raises a host of state-church concerns and concerns under lobbying prohibitions, considering his connections (he runs Bible studies for both the House and Senate, too), it is unlikely that those concerns will ever be investigated.

“Jeff Sessions [will] go out the same day I teach him something and he’ll do it on camera. And I just think, man, these guys are faithful, available, and teachable.”

Drollinger’s work is not influence, but manipulation detached from any valuable education or expertise. Sessions has often been a focus of that manipulation. Along with Vice President Mike Pence and others, Sessions is a sponsor of the White House Bible Study, first endorsing Drollinger’s Senate Bible study in early 2016.

In 2017, Drollinger told the Christian Broadcasting Network that the people in his Bible study “are so teachable.” He then bragged about how “Jeff Sessions [will] go out the same day I teach him something and he’ll do it on camera. And I just think, man, these guys are faithful, available, and teachable.”

The White House Bible Study weighs in on “our illegal immigration problem”

Sessions proved the truth of Drollinger’s boasting last week, when the Biblical rationale he provided for family separation mirrored the same theological arguments espoused by a 2016 Bible study authored by Drollinger entitled “What the Bible Says About Our Illegal Immigration Problem.”

According to documents obtained via a FOIA request, an earlier version of the study was drafted in response to President Obama’s famous November 2014 speech on immigration. There are even elements of these ideas, including the Romans 13 justification, in a 2012 Bible study, which was expanded further in 2013.

When Sessions came under fire for using the Bible to justify the barbarous practice, Capitol Ministries rushed to his defense. There is currently a theological explanation of the child separation policy on the Capitol Ministries homepage. That justification mentions the policy explicitly: “It follows that when someone breaks the law of the land that they should anticipate that one of the consequences of their illegal behavior will be separation from their children.” The defense cites Romans 13 several times and concludes by quoting verse 1 through 4 in full.

Screenshot, Capitol Ministries Homepage

The cover of the 2016 Bible study booklet on illegal immigration features an image of a young child on his father’s shoulders and begins with a dose of fear, listing “the terrorist killings in Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, CA and Orlando, FL and the further threat of terrorist incursion in America due to a naïve or misinformed understanding of what the Bible actually teaches about immigration…” (The San Bernardino shooter was born in Illinois and his wife arrived legally and was a lawful permanent resident; the Orlando shooter was born at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York.)

The zero-tolerance policy itself is never explicitly mentioned in the 2016 Bible study, but the justifications for the policy — the same justifications regurgitated by Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders — are explicit.

Romans 13 features heavily in the Bible study. It’s even Capitol Ministries’ Bible “verse of the week” and is referenced repeatedly throughout, including as a justification for the idea that undocumented immigrants must suffer all the consequences of breaking the law, whatever they may be: “It is not overreaching to reason from this passage [Romans 13:1-7] that immigration laws, like all of a nation’s laws, should stem from a desire to protect the nation and its citizenry. That protection should deter a myriad of intrusions by illegals…” Deterrence is the stated goal of the child separation policy, along with negotiating leverage.

Crucially, the study also used the passage to justify punishing “illegal immigrants” in terms that now ring familiar: “Again, in Romans 13:4 God intends for Governments to bear the sword relative to enacting justice. They are to be an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. This means Government is sanctioned, bound, and responsible to punish those who break the law … including illegal immigration…”

“[I]n Romans 13:4 God intends for Governments to bear the sword relative to enacting justice. They are to be an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

Drollinger specifically applies this rationale to immigration over and over again: “In terms of immigration, for a government to be pleasing to God and receive His blessing, it has no option but to protect its citizenry from illegal immigration per Romans 13:4 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. It must always protect its borders and punish those who enter illegally. Any governmental response that is less than this violates God’s clearly revealed intention for government and invites chaos (as we now are seeing on our southern borders).”

Screenshot, 2016 Bible study

While the child separation policy is never explicitly mentioned, the Bible study does allude to the parent-child relationship on several occasions: “Similar to a parent who incorrectly feels guilty for spanking a rebellious child because his conscience is not sufficiently informed by Scripture the conscience of the lawmaker too, should be informed by God’s Word on this subject. And God’s Word says He frowns on illegal immigrants — just like He says He frowns on children ruling the roost!”

On the whole, the Bible study is an attack on the Obama-era immigration enforcement policies. It mentions the increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border and the subsequent increase in legal and relief services for them. Specifically, Drollinger calls this provision of services “biblically uninformed thinking.” The study even includes a defense that draconian immigration policies are “not racist.”

“God’s Word says He frowns on illegal immigrants — just like He says He frowns on children ruling the roost!”

Although the family separation policy originated with White House adviser Stephen Miller, according to the The New York Times, without a doubt, Drollinger influenced government officials, providing the salve for Sessions’ conscience.

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good,” wrote Russian novelist and historian Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. Drollinger, with his unfettered access to our highest levels of government, gave Sessions the justification to feel that he is not only doing good work, but God’s work.

This post has been updated to include links to the documents obtained through the FOIA request.

Andrew L. Seidel is a constitutional attorney and Director of Strategic Response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog and nonprofit with more than 33,000 members. Seidel defends the wall of separation between state and church and is currently finishing his first book, which examines and exposes the myths underlying Christian nationalism.