“In Christ there is no east or west / In him no south or north, / But one great family bound by love / Throughout the whole wide earth,” goes the old hymn.
But in Donald Trump, there is division among American Christians. On one side are those who insist that the president is a Christian hero who is standing up for religious rights. On the other are critics who counter that white evangelical Christians have struck a corrupt but convenient bargain with an immoral leader whose inclinations are dictatorial, not religious.
Into this debate strides former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who, despite his excommunication from Trump’s good graces, remains a die-hard backer of the president and his ideological agenda. Yet in a masterful profile in The New York Times Magazine by Elaina Plott, he comes down solidly, if unwittingly, on the side of the skeptics. Sessions suggests that the president’s own religious convictions are irrelevant, compares him to the dictators Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Bashar al-Assad, and makes the case for choosing a strongman who can defend Christians over democratic politics.
This isn’t reading between the lines; Sessions makes his views quite clear. When Plott asked Sessions, who is now running an underdog campaign to return to his old U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, how Christians could support Trump, he replied with a reference to Egypt and el-Sisi.
“It’s not a democracy—he’s a strongman, tough man, but he promised to protect them. And they believed him, because they didn’t want the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt. Because they knew they’d be vulnerable. They chose to support somebody that would protect them. And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy promised to defend them. And he has.”
There are at least three astonishing elements of this answer. The first is Sessions’s favorable comparison of the U.S. to Egypt, even as he acknowledges that Egypt is not a democracy; it is, in fact, governed by a military junta that arose through a coup, and which now oversees a flawed regime. The second is the analogy between Christians in the U.S. and Egypt. Egypt’s Christians, most of whom are Copts, are a small and severely embattled minority, subject to political repression, terrorist attacks, and pogroms. Many American evangelicals believe they are also subjects of widespread discrimination. In 2017, the Public Religion Research Institute found that white evangelicals believe they face more discrimination than Muslims in America. The analogy to beleaguered Egyptian Christians underscores both the depth and the absurdity of that feeling.
Finally, the parallel between el-Sisi and Trump reveals a great deal about how Sessions sees Trump. El-Sisi is a Muslim, not a Christian, but has made some efforts to improve protections for the Christian minority since seizing power from an Islamist government. In this analogy, Trump’s religious views are neither relevant nor even the same as those of Christians; he’s useful as a protector, not as an exemplar.
This is not a single, ill-thought-out parallel. Sessions also praised the bloody Syrian dictator al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, for protecting Christians and fighting Muslim terror groups. “You know who we want to run Syria? Assad,” he said. “We are hoping that somehow he can get back in control. And there was no terrorism, no ISIS when he ran the place. He’d kill ’em. And if you didn’t cross him, he wouldn’t kill you. And he protected Christians; they were a part of his coalition.”
(As Plott notes, ISIS arose in Syria under Assad’s watch, but who’s keeping track?)
The yearning for order, and for ordering minorities, in particular, courses throughout Sessions’s worldview. When Sessions, as the attorney general, came under fire for separating migrant families at the U.S. border (including taking criticism from many evangelical leaders), he cited St. Paul’s admonition to “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” (“I was right about that,” he told Plott. “I wish I’d fought it.”) The fact that such a person could serve as the country’s top lawman speaks to how hard it is to take seriously the sense of discrimination among evangelicals. Sessions also praised Trump’s disastrous photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., as a necessary step against “socialist leftists” and mocked those who questioned Trump’s motives.
Sessions’s view is telling because he is not merely a supporter of the president’s, but one of his clearest ideological antecedents, the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential run, then his first attorney general. Trump eventually expelled Sessions from the administration because of tension over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference, and the president’s endorsement of Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University head football coach, is a top reason why Sessions may lose a July 14 runoff. But Plott notes that Sessions’s fervor for the project of Trumpism has not cooled: “Even in his exile, perhaps no one is as eager as Sessions to hold forth on why he likes Trump, why his party—why the country—so desperately needs him.”
A huge majority of evangelical Christians has lined up behind Trump, as have white Catholics. (A May poll by PRRI showed the president’s standing slipping among both groups.) Trump has repaid them with devoted attention to issues such as abortion, school vouchers, and religious liberty. There’s little outward sign of any kind of religious devotion on Trump’s part, and seldom any indication of inward reflection on any topic by the president, but leading Christian figures, writers, and ministers, including Jerry Falwell Jr., Eric Metaxas, and Franklin Graham, have defended his Christian bona fides and insisted that he is not only an ally of evangelical Christian causes but also a true believer.
A few prominent, though isolated, evangelicals have been highly critical of the president. They argue that Trump shows none of the signs of Christian devotion or morality, and that Christians who align themselves with the president are making a crude bargain with a flawed man in an attempt to obtain safe harbor. Michael Gerson, in a 2018 Atlantic cover story, criticized the habit of “evangelicals regarding themselves, hysterically and with self-pity, as an oppressed minority that requires a strongman to rescue it. This is how Trump has invited evangelicals to view themselves. He has treated evangelicalism as an interest group in need of protection and preferences.”
Sessions, in effect, is saying he agrees with Gerson’s description—but thinks that what he identifies is a perfectly fine arrangement. “There’s a difference between freedom and democracy,” he told Plott. “You need to understand this.”
The yearning for a strongman doesn’t necessarily end with religious issues. Sessions also mused on his childhood in Camden, Alabama. “It was an idyllic period,” he said. “Sort of a window. End of an age.” His memory is that things were “ordered and disciplined,” Plott writes.
Of course, the idyll depends on who is living it, as does the judgment of whether the dying age was good or bad; some people get to enjoy order, while others bear the brunt of discipline. Sessions’s childhood came during the waning days of Jim Crow, in a deeply segregated community where African Americans were starving, disenfranchised, and physically threatened. For this minority, a group that experienced genuine, rather than merely perceived, discrimination, there was neither freedom nor democracy.