On a bright, cold day in Washington, D.C.—the eve of the start of confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions—dozens of clergy gathered around Rev. William Barber and Faith in Public Life‘s Rev. Jennifer Butler on the steps of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, calling on the U.S. Senate to reject Sessions’ nomination to be U.S. attorney general.
Before the press conference began, a woman with a powerful voice created a biblical context, singing a well-known passage from the book of Micah: “What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In keeping with other events organized by Barber and his allies, the press conference and subsequent march to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office was an interfaith event. Speakers included a representative of the National Council of Churches, a Baptist preacher, a rabbi, two Muslim imams, and an immigrant single father and his born-in-the-U.S. daughter.
Butler began with a recitation of the issues on which Sessions’ record is morally unacceptable, including voting rights, immigration, fair wages for women, hate crimes, and anti-Muslim bigotry.
Barber declared that the Sessions nomination represented a “moral crisis” for the nation. Racism, Barber said, is not about whether someone uses the n-word or is “a nice person.” Racism is about systemic policies that deny people justice. Sessions’ “immoral record,” he said, shows consistent support for ideological extremism and racist, classist policies.
Barber excoriated Sessions for supporting the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act, which makes it harder for marginalized groups to vote. He said Sessions has shown contempt for the law, which the Department of Justice is required to enforce.
Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, director of the Jewish social justice group Bend the Arc Action, said the participants are inheritors of a prophetic tradition grounded in the recognition that each human being is created in a divine image and that societies are judged on the basis of how they uphold human dignity. A U.S. attorney general requires a demonstrated commitment to providing equal protection under the law, he said, and Sessions “unequivocally fails that test.”
Alyssa Aldape, an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., said the Sessions nomination has “shaken me to my very core.” She cited Sessions’ support for an Alabama law that threatened prosecution of houses of faith that assisted undocumented immigrants, saying a person who supports that kind of prosecution is “unfit” to lead the Department of Justice.
Barber also accused conservative white evangelicals who rallied to Donald Trump of engaging in “theological malpractice,” saying they used their faith to “endorse hate and discrimination.” Barber cited a passage from Isaiah that he said people of many faiths embrace: “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights and make women and children their prey.”
After the press conference, clergy lined up and streamed two blocks toward the U.S. Capitol and into the Russell Senate Office Building, where they filled the hallway outside the office of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There the clergy prayed and read, in call-and-response form, a “Declaration of Moral Action Against the Nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions.” The Declaration is a bill of particulars against Sessions’ record as a public official, framed with a question taken from Jeremiah: “Can a leopard change his spots?” Clergy followed instructions to keep hallways open and did not seek arrest “this time,” Barber noted.
Afterward, clergy walked to the building’s majestic rotunda, where they gathered around Barber, who began asking others to join Butler and him in the center of the circle: a rabbi, an imam, a woman, a representative of the LGBT community, someone under the age of 25. “One of the things we’ve learned in the moral movement is you never stand alone.”
In addition to sending a message to the Senate, the event seemed designed to send a message to the clergy and activists who took part: get used to showing up because there are going to be a lot of reasons to stand up against the Trump administration. “We will stand our ground,” said one speaker. “We are not moving to Canada!”
Barber encouraged people to stop saying this is the worst thing ever, citing slavery, the Trail of Tears, and the Holocaust. “We need to stop acting as though it’s strange to have to stand up,” he said. “Tell me a time in American history when you didn’t have to have a moral dissent.”
“We’re in the middle of a Third Reconstruction,” Barber said, “It’s our turn to be Dorothy Day. It’s our turn to be William Lloyd Garrison. It’s our turn to be Frederick Douglass…”