In 1986 Jeff Sessions, current nominee for attorney general, was nominated and rejected for a position in Alabama’s district court, primarily for having made racially insensitive remarks. There are differences of opinion over whether Sessions was then and is now a racist, which is why he is aa controversial nominee whose record is being carefully examined by civil rights activists.
People do change over time. Former Ku Klux Klan members Hugo Black and Robert Byrd served honorably in the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Senate, respectively. Has Sessions changed? Perhaps, but I’m troubled by his 2015 statement calling the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings as attempts to delegitimize the “fabulous accomplishments” of our country. Even after the June 17 massacre of nine African-American worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina by a white racist who revered the flag as a symbol of white supremacy, Sessions said he was no fan of any attempt to erase history, recalling his own family’s role in the Civil War.
I watched a C-SPAN discussion on January 9 with Steve Flowers from Alabama, a strong supporter of Sessions. He said Jeff Sessions is not a racist, using as evidence that Sessions is a former Eagle Scout and a very religious Christian. This reminded me of another religious Christian from my state who influenced national politics for decades—former segregationist Strom Thurmond.
While some of my best friends are Christians (really), mixing politics and religion is usually problematic. And this brings me to my reason for writing about Sen. Sessions.
Thomas Jefferson in 1802 described the First Amendment as erecting a “wall of separation between church & state.” While Sessions doesn’t want to erase the proud history of the Confederacy, he does want to erase Jefferson’s wall, the foundation of this country’s religious freedom, which he called a recent creation and not historical. And Sessions has, unfortunately, been consistent with his views about mingling church and state. Here are just a couple of examples out of many.
In 2001, Sessions rebuked then-Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for swearing in witnesses without requiring them to use the phrase “So help me God,” which is not a constitutional requirement. Sessions argued, “Ninety-five percent of the people believe in God,” as if majority rules when it comes to religious freedom. Sessions also equated swearing to God with telling the truth.
When Sonia Sotomayor was a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Sessions apparently thought this practicing Catholic wasn’t religious enough. He pontificated during the hearing, “If you don’t believe in a higher being, maybe you don’t believe there is any truth.” At the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in June, Sessions said he wanted to keep a “secular mindset” off the Supreme Court, a mindset he claimed was directly contrary to the founding of our republic.
Maybe Sen. Sessions should read our secular U.S. Constitution, Article VI in particular, which prohibits religious tests for public office. I had firsthand experience with an unconstitutional religious test in South Carolina when I was denied the right to hold public office because I am an atheist. I won a South Carolina Supreme Court victory in 1997, which I wrote about in my book, ‘Candidate Without a Prayer’.
If Sessions worries about Supreme Court justices (all of whom are religious) having secular mindsets, imagine how he would treat a nominee who is an open atheist. Unfortunately, if Sessions is confirmed, one of his roles will be to recommend federal judicial appointments to President Trump. I think it is safe to say, “No atheists or secularists need apply.” I worry that future justices would find or make up constitutional reasons to privilege one religion over another or religion over non-religion. So much for freedom of and freedom from religion.
I don’t know if Sen. Jeff Sessions is a racist, but neither he nor any politician these days would say openly that he or she refuses to appoint qualified African-Americans to a public office. This is certainly a change for the better from our not-so-proud history. If a politician were to defy political correctness in this manner, a bi-partisan national outcry would call for his or her immediate resignation. Why is there mostly a bi-partisan silence when someone just as blatantly discriminates openly against atheists?