“Forward together, not one step back” was the chant that rang out from a long line of protestors marching on a frigid day past the U.S. Capitol to the Senate Russell Office Building. Dozens of clergy from several religions and denominations, recognizable by the colorful prayer stoles draped over their winter coats or their distinctive head covers, led the way.
My husband and I were in the back of the long line that snaked—two-by-two—down the broad walkways and across the streets of Capitol Hill on January 9. We were headed for the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell where, as a group of hundreds, we would deliver a declaration of opposition to the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as the next attorney general.
This march followed up an ecumenical prayer service on December 14 opposing president-elect Donald Trump’s “cabinet of bigotry.”
It’s not unusual that faith groups would take a stand against bigotry, but it is highly unusual for religious groups to come out against a president’s cabinet pick. In my 35 years in Washington, DC, I’ve rarely seen it. Believe me, as someone who worked for a progressive Jewish women’s organization that has never been timid about taking a stand on Executive Branch nominees, it’s been a source of frustration over the years that other faith groups were sidelined in these battles by nervous boards, rigid policy, or divided member opinions.
That was then and this is now.
The faith leaders and organizations opposing Sessions understand that, even among the largely objectionable Trump cabinet picks, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III stands out.
His record in the Senate, representing Alabama since 1997, has been one of hostility to virtually every issue under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, from preventing hate crimes to voting rights to violence against women protections. This is not a man who will protect our rights. In 1986, after testimony about racist and extremist comments and attitudes, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected him for a lifetime seat on the federal district court in his home state. Alabama Senator Howell Heflin, who had been a Sessions supporter, actually cast the deciding vote against confirmation citing his concern about Session’s ability to be “fair and impartial.”
It is my belief that, although Sessions represents a clear and dangerous threat to justice in our country, the mobilization of religious leaders around this nominee at this time stems from something bigger.
I believe that faith groups that preach and practice lovingkindness, the equality of humankind, and social justice understand that this is a different time. They understand what Rev. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach and the NAACP said to the assembled crowd in the grand rotunda of the Russell Office Building: “You don’t pray about something you are not willing to fight for.”
Rev. Barber who has led and galvanized the Moral Monday movement not just in North Carolina but elsewhere, explained that for clergy to come out of their sanctuaries, temples, and mosques to stand up in the public square for hope and truth in the face of those who say they have more power and votes is nothing less than civil disobedience even if it doesn’t result in arrest.
Make no mistake, however, many of these leaders will no doubt rack up considerable arrest records if the government and leaders of our nation continue down the path of subverting and undermining social justice and human rights. And I suspect that faith-based organizations and religious groups once hesitant to outright oppose a president’s nominees will become important leaders in the battles today and to come.