American Christian leaders did not like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned the day after the midterm elections at the president’s request. Not just progressive Christians who abhor the Trump administration: Many of President Donald Trump’s staunch evangelical allies, along with more moderate conservative leaders, also found Sessions lacking in his role. This is curious, because Sessions is himself a conservative Christian who promoted a religious-right brand of politics. And he spent much of his time in office supporting conservative religious causes.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and one of Trump’s most loyal supporters, has been a loud and public critic of Sessions for some time. Falwell often tweeted about him, and once remarked that Sessions, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, former FBI Director James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and others, should all “rot in the same jail.”
Strangely @jeffsessions appeared unannounced at @LibertyU the night before the 2016 election on a bus tour. I told students but could get almost none of them to come hear him. Could it be our students were the first to see he was a phony pretending to be pro- @realDonaldTrump ?— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) August 2, 2018
Falwell disapproved of Sessions because he recused himself from oversight of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential Trump-campaign collusion, Falwell told me in a phone interview on Wednesday. And he disagreed with Sessions’s refusal to investigate Russia collusion “on the Democratic side,” as he described it. But he also seemed to take issue with the attorney general’s character.
“I think he’s part of the deep state,” Falwell said. “I think he’s an establishment guy ... It doesn’t mean he’s not conservative and hasn’t done some good things—he has. But he can’t get past being an establishment loyalist.”
Falwell maintained that he discussed these views with Trump a number of months ago. But he also said that the other members of Trump’s informal evangelical advisory council—who are often invited to meet with the president, take part in photo ops, and dine at the White House—disliked Sessions as well. “That’s been a topic of conversation any time I’ve spoken to any of them in the last year and a half or so,” Falwell said.
Johnnie Moore, the advisory council’s de facto spokesman and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told me there was “widespread dissatisfaction across the board from the conservative, evangelical elements of Trump’s base who believed Sessions to be weak and ineffective.” Notably, Moore added, Sessions alienated the “more moderate end of [Trump’s] evangelical base, who were dissatisfied with some of his enforcement actions, his visceral opposition to criminal-justice reform, and the tactics he supported for handling illegal immigration.”
Other Trump advisers had different reasons for their disapproval. He was seen as an obstacle to one of the main goals of the evangelical advisory group: instituting prison reform. And immigration, in particular, made Sessions unpopular among many conservative Christian groups. Sessions invoked the ire of a number of pastors, progressive and conservative alike, when he quoted the Bible to justify his department’s policy of separating families and children at the border.
The political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, along with other Christian advocacy organizations, signed a letter condemning Sessions’s family-separation policy. “The traumatic effects of this separation on these young children,” it stated, “could be devastating and long-lasting.” Six hundred members of Sessions’s own denomination, the United Methodist Church, initiated a formal censure process against him over this policy, although that effort was later dropped.
During his tenure, Sessions positioned himself as the face of the Trump administration’s religious-freedom policies, but that apparently wasn’t enough to counteract the negative perceptions of staunchly conservative groups. Just months ago, he convened a summit on the topic, and promised to oppose “a dangerous movement, undetected by many, [that] is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”
He created a new task force designed to ensure that the Justice Department was upholding and enforcing religious protections across America. He acted as an emissary to religious conservatives in particular, and was welcomed by groups including the Orthodox Union.
Some conservative Christians may have supported these initiatives, but they were seen as destructive in progressive Christian circles. At a recent luncheon, two Massachusetts-based pastors were escorted out after they interrupted a speech Sessions was giving. “Brother Jeff, as a fellow United Methodist, I call upon you to repent, to care for those in need,” said Will Green, the pastor of Ballard Vale United Church in Andover. The pastor was walked out by officers as he recited a Bible verse. Another pastor, Darrell Hamilton II of Boston, stood up. “I thought we were here to protect religious liberty, sir,” he said as he himself was removed from the luncheon. “I am a pastor of a Baptist church, and you are escorting me out for exercising my religious freedom.”
It’s not clear whether Trump’s evangelical advisers influenced his decision to fire Sessions, although their disapproval could not have helped the attorney general’s case. Whether Christian leaders saw Sessions as an enemy of Trump or the symbol of Trump’s most divisive policies, they were united in their rejection.
“It was obvious for a long time Jeff Sessions was on his way out,” said Jentezen Franklin, a Georgia megachurch pastor who is one of Trump’s advisers. “I think most of us in the faith community felt he was a good man, but not an effective attorney general.”