Sen. Jeff Sessions won't boycott the pope's address to Congress Thursday, but the Alabama Republican doesn’t expect to be swayed by what he says on immigration, climate change or the economy.
"He's said things close to open borders, which I think is wrong, and his opinion is no more persuasive to me than the Wall Street Journal's. I don't agree with either one," Sessions told CQ Roll Call in a hallway interview Tuesday.
“It’s always dangerous for church leaders to start opining on complex matters of which they haven't had a chance to learn over the years. I mean, we've been wrestling with immigration for 30 years. That's a lot of knowledge. So the pope is not invested in that," Sessions said.
He continued, "It's all right for him to call on us to establish an immigration law that serves the national interest and assists people, but how that's done, I think he probably is not sufficiently informed, and I would say that despite some of the biblical things, Nehemiah went back to Jerusalem and the Lord commanded him to build a wall.
Michael Simonson, of Falls Church, Va., takes a selfie with a cardboard cutout of Pope Francis outside of the White House Wednesday morning, (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
"So, many references in the Old Testament about the legitimacy of nations or countries or tribal areas, deciding who goes in and through and who does not. So that's part of it."
Later in the conversation, Sessions suggested the pope go to his native Argentina instead.
"I would suggest on immigration, maybe he would want to go to Argentina and ask them to take more people from the Middle East. They take almost none."
And Sessions isn't a big fan of the pope's criticism of capitalism either.
"Has a socialist policy worked in Argentina or Brazil? Who do they call on when there is a refugee crisis? The West, who has a free market system that has created wealth. ... Even our poor people are wealthier than middle-class people in most countries."
Sessions noted he's a Methodist and doesn't always agree with what leaders in his church say either.
"Our bishops and church leaders say really foolish things periodically that I'm glad parishioners don't know that they did. It would further hurt the church than it already has," he said.
Sessions added that the church should focus on spiritual issues.
"Jesus focused on the bread of life, the spiritual realm," he said. "You get that right, everything else kind of falls into place. I don't think there's anything in the scriptures that says nation states shouldn't operate as nation states do. There was never any arguments that Rome's basic secular infrastructure was fundamentally evil."
Sessions suggested it would be better to help countries understand that "a free market system will eliminate more poverty than a government passing a law."
But he said there's a delicate balance, and there are times when church leadership has been very important in the public sphere.
"I've always been uneasy about church leaders getting too deeply involved in political issues because it can undermine their core mission, undermine their ability to be effective on spiritual matters. However, there is no doubt that on occasion there are times that a call for obedience and an objection to wrong policies is demanded of church leaders. Where you draw that line, I don't know."
There is one area where Sessions said he's seen religious leaders be a positive force: the civil rights movement.
"In the civil rights days, that was a powerful thing. And people had to choose in the South."
He remembers people asking pastors, "Can a black person worship in this church or not?"
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