U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month as part of the process for his nomination as attorney general.
Sessions has a long history of making disparaging comments about the separation of church and state. Over the years, he has called that principle “not constitutional,” “not historical” and “a recent creation.”
We had hoped Sessions would be asked to explain these alarming comments. That didn’t happen, but there was one especially telling exchange between Sessions and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Whitehouse asked Sessions whether “secular” attorneys working in the federal government would have reason to worry under Sessions’ tenure, and whether they have “just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious.”
To this Sessions replied. “Well, I’m not sure.”
This sort of thinking is, unfortunately, all too common among the Religious Right. Adherents of that movement often insist that only religion – usually their preferred version of Christianity – can ensure moral behavior. They seem to believe that anyone who doesn’t have a conventional religious belief is somehow amoral or possibly dangerous.
A glance at history, and the world around us today, exposes that for the short-sighted thinking that it is. Religion has indeed inspired many people to do great things. It has also led some to participate in great evil.
People should be judged not by what they claim to believe but rather by their actions. If the secular attorneys Whitehouse referred to have served the country faithfully, that should be all Sessions needs to know. By their fruits you will know them. When and if they choose to attend a house of worship should be none of the government’s business.
Americans can, and should, apply that same standard to Sessions. Judge him by his actions. Those include crude and misinformed attacks on church-state separation – a “recent” concept? Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would be surprised to hear that! – demands that the government erect Ten Commandments displays and discrimination against LGBTQ Americans.
Many would look at this behavior and say that it is not good, decent or even “moral.” Many would expect more empathy and understanding (not to mention better history) from the man who aspires to be the top legal official in a diverse nation where people adhere to thousands of faiths and growing numbers claim no faith at all.
Sessions may be “not sure” about the ability of people who reject conventional religion to be good, but the millions of Americans who live this way or associate with people who do know better.
There’s one thing many of them are sure of: Sessions is the wrong man to uphold a Constitution that safeguards religious freedom by building a high and firm wall of separation between church and state.