Jeff Sessions resigns, ending tenure marred by fights with faith groups

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses reporters during a news conference at the Moakley Federal Building in Boston on July 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

(RNS) — Methodists asked Jeff Sessions to repent. He resigned instead.

Sessions stepped down today (Nov. 7) as U.S. attorney general, ending a tenure marked by near-constant pushback from faith communities across the religious spectrum who opposed his policies and his attempts to defend them with Scripture.

He reportedly resigned at the request of President Trump, who has voiced frustration with Sessions since he recused himself early last year from the ongoing Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, citing his work on Trump’s campaign.

“I have been honored to serve as Attorney General and have worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law that formed a central part of your campaign for the presidency,” read the closing line of Sessions’ resignation letter to Trump.

Trump tweeted that Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew G. Whitaker, would serve as acting attorney general for now, thanked Sessions for his service and wished him well.

Sessions brought a concern for religious freedom to the job, and a passion for quoting the Bible that few recent attorneys general have, but it often backfired on him. In fact, Sessions is unlikely to be missed by a wide array of religious groups and leaders — including some supportive of Trump.

Pushback and protest from faith groups dogged Sessions from the moment he was tapped for the job. Shortly after President Trump announced he would nominate the former Alabama senator for attorney general, progressive religious leaders such as the Rev. William Barber II held rallies in opposition to his nomination.

“Sessions’ immoral record shows consistent support for ideological extremism, racist and classist policies, and the writing of discrimination into law,” Barber said in January 2017.

Tensions increased when Sessions helped implement the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that led to the separation of families along the U.S.-Mexico border, sparking outcry from various faith communities. Among other groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the policy, and one bishop suggested “canonical penalties” for Catholics who participate in it.

Sessions fed the controversy when he spoke directly to his “church friends” in a speech, attempting to justify the policy and give faith-based critics a Bible lesson by citing Romans 13 in Christian Scripture.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Groups across the theological spectrum, including the leadership of entire denominations, issued statements blasting the policy, Sessions’ theological argument or both.

Soon thereafter, more than 600 Methodists signed a letter condemning the “zero-tolerance” policy and calling for official church charges against Sessions such as child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church.”

The charges were eventually dismissed on a technicality — using a logic that confused some top Methodists — but frustration with Sessions persisted.

“Fundamentally, I hope that he will repent and believe the good news of liberation and hope proclaimed by the One he claims to follow,” said University of Puget Sound chaplain Dave Wright, who helped draft the original letter charging Sessions, “and put renewed effort into doing the work of caring for those on the margins in his home congregation and community.”

Wright had little faith that he’ll be more pleased with the person the president nominates to take Sessions’ spot. “The best I can hope for is that his successor somehow has a greater conscience for doing good to those who are oppressed and marginalized in this country and is willing to live that out in their public life.”

Earlier this year, Sessions lifted up religious liberty as a central concern for the Department of Justice, announcing a “religious liberty task force,” drawing more criticism from faith leaders. Last week, Sessions began to deliver a speech in Boston about religious liberty but was interrupted by two ministers who stood up and began reciting a passage from the Gospel of Matthew concerning the treatment of “strangers.”

“Brother Jeff, as a fellow United Methodist,” shouted the Rev. Will Green after reciting Matthew 25, “I call upon you to repent, to care for those in need, to remember that when you do not care for others, you are wounding the body of Christ.”

Even evangelical leaders who support and advise Trump often spoke critically of Sessions during his final year.

In April, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. derided Sessions on Twitter, describing him as a “phony” who is only pretending to support the president.

Johnnie Moore — a former Falwell lieutenant who in the past has operated as de facto spokesman for evangelical leaders who advise Trump — openly criticized Sessions’ attempt to defend family separation, telling the Washington Post, “While Sessions may take the Bible seriously, in this situation he has demonstrated he is no theologian.”

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.


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  • Sessions is a decent man, not well suited to the job he got, and deserving of our respect. The jackals on the Left, in his native Methodist church, seem to fail to realize that the Attorney General is responsible for enforcing laws and investigating crimes, not being a spokesman for politically correct victim groups that are special favorites of the social gospel denominations like the Methodists. He quoted the appropriate passage in Romans and properly exegeted. But for some who are more concerned with being woke than being faithful to God’s commands, such a passage is like holy water to a vampire. Live well, Mr. Sessions, and I suggest finding a more faithful denomination.

  • Nope, he didn’t even come close in his interpretation.

    He & you might leave exegesis to others more knowledgeable.

  • He certainly seemed to tick and tie to all the traditional interpretations of the Scriptures quoted.

    The “progressive” take on it, of course, is different.

  • Of course I would expect woke brigade would feel uncomfortable with the plain meaning of scripture passages.

  • Sessions was a racist piece of garbage who had no business as AG.

    No, Sparky the role of the AG is not to attack people at the president’s behest. By “politically correct” you mean respect and protect the civil liberties of people. It was his job. He failed miserably.

    Good riddance.

    His departure comes as no surprise. Trump is always at odds with the mildly competent and experienced. Trump will set himself up for impeachment when he tries to derail Mueller.

  • I guess you find it easy to cast away good men if they interfere with your pc values. For the record, he attacked no one, unless you mean that enforcing the law is attacking people who are breaking the law. The civil liberties of illegal immigrants who are not even citizens but breaking the law is found in the fact they are legally arrested and duly processed. And if you would bother to check the job description of the AG, it is not the liberal version of the job: assuming the role of pc/ACLU advocate but assuring the law is met. Guess you miss the former occupant of the office, Eric Holder, worst AG in history.

    Good luck holding your breath for Mueller to announce evidence of Russia. Mueller’s been working a dry hole for almost two years now and has not found a gusher. The whole effort is just a ploy of leftists with TDS who are convinced there is a pony underneath all that dung.

  • Go ahead – impeach him. You first need to have evidence of treason or high crimes and misdemeanors. Good luck with that one – mueller has nothing.
    Then after the clowns in the house introduce articles of impeachment; you’ll need 2/3 of the senate to convict and remove from office.
    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE try to impeach.
    Republicans only kept the senate because of the Kavanaugh witch-trials….
    Trump will win in a landslide in 2020.

  • It was the usual cherry-picking of a verse to back up his position in spite of the countless verses that speak about protecting and caring for children and the marginalized.

    That is also the same verse used throughout recent history to prop of such despicable government laws and institutions as slavery, the fugitive slaves act, German National Socialism and South African Apartheid.

    The Trump immigration policy of jailing adults and separating children from relatives was condemned by as disparate folks as Franklin Graham and a Catholic cardinal and bishops. They don’t appear to have shared Sessions poor exegesis and they aren’t “progressive.”

  • I sense the desperation in your remark.

    Where to start?

    Mueller has already secured several friendly witnesses and six convictions so far in his efforts. More than a mere fishing expedition. Nixon resigned on far less than what is building up for Trump.

    Trump is probably going to do something stupid like try to fire Mueller or shut down the probe. Trump is toxic to people who are bound by professional ethical duties like lawyers. This will be interesting.

  • Sessions was never a good man. He was always scum. Too racist for the federal bench in THE REAGAN YEARS.

    The man made his bed with Trump voluntarily. He garner no sympathy when it inevitably exploded in his face.

    “PC values” are better known as upholding the law and civil liberties of our entire people. For the record he attacked people of color, promoted corruption and sought ridiculously draconian efforts to serve bigoted goals.

    “Rule of law” only matters to conservatives if it can be a mantra for ignoring discrimination and racism. It is conveniently ignored when discussion corruption and the basic principles of democratic government.

    Bye Jeff. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Good luck selling your memoirs on the wingnut welfare circuit.

  • Sessions has a long history as a racist. Even a very quick investigation of Sessions will show this. Not unexpected in an individual who grew up in the south and who calls himself a “Christian”.

  • It’s also the same verse that was very frequently cherry-picked and bandied about by atheists here a year or two ago to urge Christians to participate in immoral events because state and local “anti-discrimination” laws say they should.

    I am not inclined to rely overmuch on the exegesis of others, but at the very least a lifelong Christian has a higher likelihood of getting his exegesis right than a rank atheist with an agenda.

    “The Trump immigration policy of jailing adults and separating children from relatives was condemned by as disparate folks as Franklin Graham and a Catholic cardinal and bishops.” Then perhaps the newly reconstituted House should get to work changing the laws that lead to that result instead of fantasizing about interminable hearings and investigations that are going nowhere.

  • “Republicans only kept the senate because of the Kavanaugh witch-trials….”

    I had to laugh watching the election returns. Every last one of the red state Dem senators who voted against Kav lost. The only one who voted for him is still standing. The Dems with their Ford-Kavanaugh floor show precluded themselves from ever passing major progressive legislation or ever getting any of their most hated targets removed. Great job, guys.

    Although they can still burn through a lot of time and money trying, ultimately blowing up the bit of grudging good will they have left with the voters just in time for 2020.

  • “That is also the same verse used throughout recent history to prop of such despicable government laws and institutions as slavery, the fugitive slaves act, German National Socialism and South African Apartheid.”

    The very same verse used throughout history to support governments of law, the war crimes trials after WWII, and the end of lynching.

    There’s a message there which you appear not to be getting.

    “The Trump immigration policy of jailing adults and separating children from relatives was condemned by …..”.

    The difference is that they admitted it was lawful and did not suggest that government officials sworn to uphold the law and the Constitution were immoral for doing their jobs.

    This is one of the glaring problems with many so-called “progressive” positions: they tend towards anarchy and reject the political process and our system of government. It substitutes personal judgment for the rule of law, and prefers court orders to legislation.

    It is the kind of thinking that led to Venezuela’s situation.

    Trump’s policy did not even come close to “slavery, the fugitive slaves act, German National Socialism and South African Apartheid”.

    But the loudest “progessive” pundit at RNS, Mark Silk, has constructed an entire alternate reality around that sort of thinking.

  • ACCUSATIONS of racism, not racism.

    “At Sessions’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, four Department of Justice lawyers who had worked with Sessions testified that he made racially offensive remarks. One of those lawyers, J. Gerald Hebert, testified that Sessions had referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as ‘un-American’ and ‘Communist-inspired’ (Sessions said he was referring to their support of the Sandinistas) and that they did more harm than good by trying to force civil rights ‘down the throats of people’. Hebert, a civil rights lawyer, said that he did not consider Sessions a racist, and that Sessions ‘has a tendency sometimes to just say something, and I believe these comments were along that vein’. Hebert also said that Sessions had called a white civil rights attorney ‘maybe’ a ‘disgrace to his race’. Sessions said he did not recall making that remark and he did not believe it.”

  • “interminable hearings and investigations that are going nowhere”

    “interminable hearings and investigations” of Mrs. Clinton helped get Trump elected. Now he needs to get that check from Mexico to pay for The Wall so that he can Make America White Again.

  • Mrs. Clinton – was that the “vast right wing conspiracy”?

    Mrs. Clinton herself helped get Trump elected.

  • I’m not aware of what you drag up as happening here 1 or 2 years ago. That has nothing to do with today. And your sonopsis is way too vague to follow.

    Your last paragraph is a rant about nothing involving this article. Still you contribute nothing to a conversation, you just post crap to draw attentoion away from the topic.

  • Immoral was the exact word used by Graham.

    The fact that you believe this policy doesn’t approach the immorality of the others isn’t the point. That is just a comment to distract from the conversation. As to Venzuela, theose poor folks have an asshat president similat to that of the US, both substitute personal judgement for the rule of law. They keep throowing there stupiod ideas against the wall to see what sticks. Luckily Trump keeps losing in court because of the rule of law.

  • Did Graham say the policy was immoral, or that doing your job as a government employee is immoral?

    The fact that Graham believed the policy was immoral isn’t the point.

    As to Venezuela, the similarity is much greater to Barack Obama, who in the last two years of his administration was ruling be edict, e.g., DACA.

    On the other hand, you do know what you like.

  • 1 or 2 years has nothing to do with today, while you go back almost 200 years to find something to do with today? Oooook….

    You were whining about the policy of family separation at the border, were you not? I suggested that the Dems in the house work on some legislation to change the laws which lead to that. That is hardly drawing attention away from the topic. Drawing attention away from the whining, perhaps…

  • The headline on this piece, and the very first sentence, are INCORRECT.

    Sessions did not resign; he was FIRED. It’s disturbing that Mr. Jenkins could use the incorrect word “resign”.

  • Whatever the reason is that the Repugnicans kept the senate, it’s very disturbing that those voters apparently don’t care about the Constitution, the idea of a free press, and so on.

  • Apparently they do care about the Constitution. The debacle that the Democrats made of the Kavanaugh nomination led to every single Democratic participant in making a mockery of advice and consent getting job notices.

  • Jeff Sessions weighs 135lbs and has a very severe case of ‘the little man syndrome’, and a passed-down, built in hate for black folks. Hes a real, modern day Barney Fife. Terrified of black folks and seeking encouragement among larger white male folk, he’s the last guy you want overseeing Justice. Jeffrey needs to bring his cowardly azz on back down here in Grand Bay Alabama and help his cousins sell fruit.