Jeff Sessions and the Federalists

“Of course, you all remember Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass…”

And thus did former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions warm up a Boston audience at his 2018 Federalist Society talk on the rising threat of “vigorous secularism.”

I was inside, instead of outside with the protesters, to scratch an itch. Having worked against the War on Drugs for years, I appreciated the fact that such natural enemies as William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, and the Koch brothers shared my views on drug policy. As a former graduate student in philosophy and sophomore for life, I remain intrigued by the conflict between deeply held values expressed as competing legal rights. I sought a glimpse into the intellectual and ideological architecture that resulted in such episodic agreement between myself and said conservatives. How do we land on one side or another of these issues? I would “audit” this talk to catch that glimpse.

Sophomore for life.

“… it still okay for us to say ‘Hail Mary’?

Sessions added coyly, sharing a naughty wink with an adoring audience of white men in suits and a sprinkling of white women in work dress, implicitly defining them as victims of political correctness and the existential threat to Christianity.

They didn’t look like victims, these well heeled acolytes of the Federalist Society (except perhaps those who hadn’t yet made partner). Indeed, Sessions bragged about the number of Supreme Court justices they had groomed, but it is the genius of the political Right to socialize and embrace the gritty motivations of victimhood.

Sessions began by expressing genuine disgust at the killings in the Pittsburgh Synagogue, calming my ethnic paranoia that was fanned by his Hail Mary (read: War On Christians) remark. He then provided a litany of affronts to religious individuals and groups who had been silenced, coerced, or treated as second-class citizens: pastors “fearful” to stand in their own pulpits, small businesses and nuns forced to pay for “other people’s birth control,” and, at length, a sincerely devout baker forced to create a wedding cake for a gay marriage, an activity he finds morally offensive.

The wedding cake conflict echoed the refusals of service that sparked the civil rights movement. And here it was again, with a new despised minority. But, as I secretly hoped, some of this was indeed challenging: As a 60s political activist, I resonated with the call for free speech; as an advocate against the War on Drugs, I appreciate freedom from a draconian federal government; and as a multiple war resister, I applaud the primacy of personal conscience in the face of that same (damn) government. And in the abstract, I didn’t feel comfortable using state power to force someone to do something they found repugnant even if their repugnance was repugnant to me.

Before the talk, I mentioned the Drug War to a table mate, expecting agreement about egregious federal overreach and restrictions on individual freedom. But while sympathetic, he felt that marijuana could “take over a person,” so he couldn’t support legalization—the activity was sufficiently threatening to override normal libertarian principles. It was one way to tip the balance, to order rights, though not what I expected from a member of this Society. How dowe make such decisions?

While adrift in the philosophical jurisprudence of it all, Mr. Sessions brought full certainty to the room by asserting that our rights come from religion and from actions motivated by our faith; our religion defines who we are, a higher level value than legal freedoms which merely define what we believe. As I wondered how this religious usurpation of worldly authority sat with the constitutional lawyers and other professionals who appeared perfectly rapt, I was brought back to earth by three interrupting protesters who appeared, one after the other.

The first, a white minister, stood and appealed to Sessions as a fellow Methodist to heed biblical dictates and to follow Jesus’s call to help the least among us, specifically immigrant children. Here we go, I smiled to myself; bible to bible. The woman on my right just rolled her eyes.

Of course he was professionally escorted out, but I had not anticipated the booming chorus of “boos” from the suits and dresses, over which an unruffled Sessions blandly asserted that, “Any government has the right to define and protect its borders.” We have laws, he reminded us, and we have to follow them. End of story.

As his response began to sink in, the second protestor, an African American minister, stood, expressed similar sentiments and was also professionally escorted out. But in addition to the boos, there were harsh shouts of “Go home!” “Go home!” “Go home!” My eye rolling neighbor who had muttered, “Here we go again,” when he stood, was so shaken that she turned and yelled, “No! No!” at the shouters. It was that raw.

Soon after Sessions resumed, a third protestor, of indeterminate gender, marched in, shouting, “We are not invisible! We will not disappear!” before being even more quickly marched out. S(h)e presumably was representing the LGBTQ population with the audacity to, say, celebrate a marriage. And, prophetically, her presence barely registered, as Sessions made a dismissive comment about the “heckler’s veto” and continued.

Sessions then returned to the Pittsburgh slaughter which he explained, not as an attack on a despised minority, but as yet another attack on organized religion, on people of faith.

That did it.

I thought of Sessions’ secular response to the first minister’s plea to consider children torn from their families; how quickly his putative reliance on biblical precepts melted in the face of a state interest he supported—limiting entry to people who looked nothing like this audience.

I thought of the audience’s response to the second minister; how crudely they reminded him that he didn’t belong, that he wasn’t home.

I thought of the invisibility of the third protester and how it felt legitimate in that room to say that a straight person could discriminate against a gay person in the same way that white shop keepers discriminated against black customers—that homosexuality could be considered a moral affront, indeed an existential threat, not unlike my table mate’s drug fears or Sessions’ Christians-as-victims world view.

I thought of the complete lack of response (except my audible gasp) when he “explained” the killings in Pittsburgh and wondered if he would have even mentioned it if the victims hadn’t been in a house of worship.

Who was visible to this group? Who counted?

I felt crushing tribal gravitation behind the high sounding rhetoric. All the legal hair splitting dissipated as quickly as did Session’s reliance on biblical text in the face of a biblical challenge; in the face of a challenge from a person of color; in the face of a challenge from someone of non-conforming gender; indeed, in the face of anynon-observant person.

Enough of a glimpse.

Enough of them.

 *    *    *    *

And so, and with angry chants of “go home!” still ringing in my ears, I went home, wondering how I might find affordable tickets to see Hamilton.

Bill Fried is the co-Author of The Uses of the American Prison. He is retired from the staff of Law Enforcement Action Partnership and is on the Somerville Task Force regarding Supervised Consumption Sites. His op-eds have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.