Bernie Sanders’s Religious Test
I’m a bit late to this, but attention must be paid: In a confirmation hearing for a Trump economic appointee, Sen. Bernie Sanders tried to impose a religious test for public office. Emma Green reports:
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders flirted with the boundaries of this rule during a confirmation hearing for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Sanders took issue with a piece Vought wrote in January 2016 about a fight at the nominee’s alma mater, Wheaton College. The Christian school had fired a political-science professor, Larycia Hawkins, for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Vought disagreed with Hawkins’s post and defended the school in an article for the conservative website The Resurgent.During the hearing, Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage that he found particularly objectionable:
Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.
“In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders told the committee during his introductory remarks. “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms … we must not go backwards.”
Green explains the context of Vought’s statement: examining the theological claims of Islam vis-à-vis his own Evangelical Christian commitments. What this has to do with being deputy director of a budget office is not clear. Green goes on:
It’s one thing to take issue with bigotry. It’s another to try to exclude people from office based on their theological convictions. Sanders used the term “Islamophobia” to suggest that Vought fears Muslims for who they are. But in his writing, Vought was contesting something different: He disagrees with what Muslims believe, and does not think their faith is satisfactory for salvation. Right or wrong, this is a conviction held by millions of Americans—and many Muslims might say the same thing about Christianity.
This is the danger of relying on religion as a threshold test for public service, the kind of test America’s founders were guarding against when they drafted Article VI. But that danger did not stop Sanders or Van Hollen from focusing on Vought’s religious beliefs during his confirmation hearing.
I’m really grateful to Emma Green for making this point. Arrogant secularist Bernie Sanders thinks he’s being magnanimous by insisting that Vought has to deny his religious convictions for the sake of public service. What interests me about this, in part, is the religious illiteracy on display: the idea that the only acceptable religious view is universalism. The hypocrisy here is that Sanders and his kind think that they’re taking a stand for tolerance and compassion.
If one is a faithful Muslim, then one necessarily believes that Christians are wrong about some pretty big things. If a faithful Muslim believes that I am going to be damned for rejecting Mohammed’s message, but he is committed to treating me fairly in his professional position, then God bless him. I don’t care if he thinks I’m going to hell, as long as he doesn’t do anything to send me there. If we are going to live together in a pluralist society, we have to give each other space to be faithful to our beliefs. This is not unlimited, of course, and could never be. But shouldn’t we be as expansive as we can be? As a general rule, the proper standard of judgment outside of our religious communities is not what one believes, but how one behaves.
I do believe that as America secularizes, the Bernie Sanders/Chris Van Hollen approach will become more normative — even from MTD Christians. Still, it’s good to see pushback today. One mistake they make is to think that their secularist (or religious universalist) views are neutral. They aren’t. Typical progressive arrogance: they profess tolerance, but will only tolerate people who agree with them.
I hate to say it, but … this is how we got Trump. Yes, many conservative Christians voted for Trump enthusiastically. But I know many more who voted for Trump with heavy hearts because they were afraid of exactly what Bernie Sanders did here. That is, they fear — reasonably — that the Democratic Party leadership is so hidebound to militant secularism that a Hillary Clinton presidency would have worked to marginalize professing orthodox Christians even further.
Can you blame them? There are orthodox Christian believers who are tired of the Republican Party, and would be open to voting for the Democrats — but not at the expense of their religious liberty.
At the risk of being a broken record, though, orthodox Christians need to prepare themselves for the day when most Americans see Bernie Sanders’s and Chris Van Hollen’s point of view as perfectly unobjectionable. As I was told by a professor at an elite law school, while reporting The Benedict Option, it is very hard for Christians outside of professional legal circles to appreciate how utterly ignorant (at best) or hostile (at worst) law elites are about religion. This matters. This really matters. These are the people who will be interpreting the law.