Attorney General Jeff Sessions (was fired) resigned at the request of President Trump. Session’s resignation has the potential to have enormous impact on a number of issues: the Mueller probe into Russian collusion could be ended or significantly curtailed; the criminalization of undocumented immigrants and subsequent controversial separation of migrant children from their parents might be reevaluated; the Department of Justice’s stance on issues such as police shootings and systemic racism within police departments and marijuana could moderate from the hardline positions taken by Sessions; the DOJ may alter its tendencies to scrutinize “black identity extremists” even while the Trump administration has gone soft on violent white nationalists. But in the midst of all these other changes, the changeover at the top of the DOJ removes one of the administration’s strongest advocates for a Christian nationalist, white Evangelical friendly interpretation of religious liberty.
Sessions has promoted a white conservative Evangelical agenda in a way that few cabinet officials have. Sessions, along with Vice President Mike Pence, expressed a narrative that faith (read: Christianity) was under attack from a “postmodern, relativistic, secular mindset” and promoted an extremely broad and conservative-friendly interpretation of religious freedom, which essentially equates to the ability of religious individuals (read: conservative Christians, including white Evangelicals and conservative Catholics) to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws and other regulations when these laws conflict with their beliefs. Sessions interpretation of “religious liberty” fits with a larger GOP strategy of appealing to the fundamental, constitutionally protected principle of religious freedom to limit or curtail other rights and freedoms, especially concerning issues such as abortion, contraception, and LGBTQ protections.
While in office, Jeff Sessions hailed the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling in favor of a Christian baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple (Sessions: “there are plenty of other people to bake that cake.”). Sessions ordered the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” to protect religious groups and individuals from legal challenges brought about by a “dangerous movement” of secularism. He also essentially ordered the DOJ to stop enforcing the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law (named after then Senator, and later President, Lyndon B. Johnson) that prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including religious organizations, from engaging in direct partisan political activity, such as endorsing candidates. Although the vast majority of Evangelical leaders support the Johnson Amendment the way it is, a few prominent. predominantly white Evangelicals leaders and organizations have challenged the Johnson Amendment or lobbied for the law to be abolished or amended (black Protestant clergy, interestingly enough, are the ones most likely to violate the prohibition against endorsing candidates).
Although Sessions positioned himself as a defender of religious liberty, the actual beneficiaries of his protection and promotion was a particular subset of conservative Christian individuals and organizations. The now-former Attorney General was criticized harshly by progressive churches, African-American faith communities, various Catholic bishops and organizations, and even his own United Methodist denomination. Sessions also managed to alienate many of the influential conservative Evangelicals whose interests he ostensibly served, and these Evangelical leaders reportedly made their displeasure known to President Trump, perhaps placing the final nail in the coffin of Sessions role as Attorney General.
If Sessions’ firing came in part because of the public rebuke and private counsel of Evangelical figures such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., it is a deep irony, as conservative Evangelicals have been among the most significant beneficiaries of his tenure in office. Given President Trump’s continued reliance on this group as a solid block of support, white Evangelical leaders will likely have a say in picking Sessions’ replacement, although it may be difficult to find a champion as zealous as Jeff Sessions.