Home/Rod Dreher/The Laïcité Of Bernie

The Laïcité Of Bernie

Bernie Sanders in last night's Las Vegas debate (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

After last night’s debate, I think we all need to start getting used to the fact that the Democratic nominee will be an elderly socialist. Look, anything could happen between now and then, but the moderates are going to tear each other up, split the vote, and hand the thing to Bernie. Any thought that Bloomberg would have a shot at taking Bernie out ought to have gone up in flames last night, when Warren scorched him hard on sexual harassment and NDAs. There aren’t really any good answers to these questions, from a Bloomberg point of view, but there are worse answers than others. He gave worse answers, and looked extremely unready to run for president.

I have conservative Christian friends who are planning to vote for Bernie. They prefer his rectitude to Trump’s corruption, and though they aren’t socialists, they prefer Bernie’s radicalism to whatever Trump stands for. They know that Bernie is ardently pro-choice and pro-LGBT, but they’re counting on his greater interest in economics and class to occupy a President Sanders than pushing wokeness.

I don’t buy it. To a Christian conservative like me, the only reason to vote for Trump is — well, two closely related reasons. First, it’s the conservative federal judges that come with a Republican president. As I’ve written before here, all indications are that the country is inexorably moving towards secular liberalism. And, as we know, the Millennials and Zoomers are far less “liberal” in the sense that they are tolerant of speech and actions that they don’t like. Twenty years from now, people like me and my tribe will have to depend on federal judges with a robust and expansive view of First Amendment liberties as our last line of protection from an activist progressive president and Congress.

The second reason, which is really just part of the first reason, is to forestall the coming persecutorial progressivism for as long as we can.

There is zero reason to hope that a Sanders administration would be kinder and gentler on social issues. Bernie is a doctrinaire leftist. I don’t think he thinks much at all about religious people, but to the extent that he does, I believe he has all the bog-standard leftist opinions about us. A reader points to Terry Mattingly’s 2017 column on Sen. Sanders opening up on Russell Vought, a Southern Baptist Trump nominee to the federal bureaucracy. Excerpt:

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus – period.

Thus, Sanders said: “You wrote, ‘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.’ Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?”

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims “stand condemned.”

Once again, Vought said: “Senator, I’m a Christian …”

Sanders shouted him down: “I understand you are a Christian! But this country is made of people who are not. … Do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?” Sanders concluded that he would reject Vought because, “this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”

Afterwards, Sanders drew criticism from those arguing that – rather than defending tolerance – he had attacked Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which says “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Meanwhile, a similar controversy was unfolding in England, where Tim Farron – leader of the Liberal Democrats – resigned after waves of questions about his personal, evangelical beliefs about sexual morality. He had already taken political stands backing abortion and gay marriage.

Finally, Farron released a statement noting: “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe in and whom my faith is in. … We are kidding ourselves if we think we are living in a tolerant liberal society.”

TMatt links to this essay from the time by Ismail Royer, a Muslim, defending Vought against Sanders’s attack. Excerpt:

I am a Muslim and thus obviously disagree with Vought that my theology is deficient. Rather, I believe his theology is deficient. I believe that Jesus is not God himself but a prophet of God, and I believe that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism. I worship, as Joseph did, the one and unitary God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the triune God of the Nicene Creed. I do not apologize for this belief.

Nor should Vought apologize for his. His statements were not crude bigotry, but a passionate defense of his creed entirely within the realm of discourse of reasonable, civilized men and women. America is a land incredibly rich in diverse cultures, religions, and shades of opinion. Mature adults, confident in the truth and reasonableness of their own beliefs, are capable of functioning, and indeed flourishing, alongside those who believe differently. No one enjoys hearing his deeply held religious beliefs contradicted or belittled, but demanding to be “safe” from hearing contrary opinions is simply bad citizenship.

To be sure, if a candidate for public office were found to be so strident in his beliefs as to render him incapable of discharging his duties impartially to the detriment of the public good, then such beliefs would certainly be relevant to the decision to appoint him. But that does not seem to be the case here. Taken out of context, and to the sensitive ear of those unaccustomed to religious discourse about absolute truths, Vought’s statement that Muslims are “condemned” sounds harsh. As noted, however, it was part of a broader theological argument. Nowhere does he conclude that Muslims should be hated or treated differently from non-Muslims.

Exactly right. I run into liberals from time to time who, if we end up talking about fundamentalist Christians, challenge me if I defend them. It’s always some version of, “Don’t you understand that they think Christians like you are going to hell?” My response is always some version of, “I don’t care, as long as they don’t do anything to put me there.”

Leftists like Sanders usually can’t grasp any way of understanding religion that is not tame and universalist. They see it as a threat to the public order if it’s not. An American law professor teaching in France told me something really helpful, regarding the different ways American constitutional law and French constitutional law regard the concept of religious liberty. In America, we think of the separation of church and state as something that protects the church from the state; in France, they believe it protects the state from the church. This is why the French have a policy called laïcité, which relegates religion to private observance, in a much more strict and aggressive way than in America.

I believe that Sanders, if he becomes president, will govern according to a reflexive laïcité. It is already common on the American left to define “religious liberty” as the freedom to go to worship on your faith’s holy days, but leave it there. To be clear, I think that no Democratic candidate would be any different on this issue — which is why I cannot see voting for a candidate of a party so hostile to religious believers. Still, that exchange between Sanders and Vought was so crystal-clear, and Sanders was so vituperative, that there really cannot be any serious doubt about where he stands, and how he will treat religious believers in his administration’s policy.

I can understand why even conservative religious believers would believe that four more years of Trump would be worse than anything President Sanders (and the judges he appoints) would dole out to traditionalists. I think they’re wrong, but I can see their point of view. They ought to at least be honest, and not base their hope on the idea that Bernie will be too distracted by the stuff he cares about, economics and health care, to pay much attention to the intersection of religion and public life. He personally may not, but you can be sure that the people he appoints certainly will.

Jake Tapper followed up with Bernie later, and got an incoherent defense out of him. Watch below. Sanders says Americans are free to believe what they want, but not to be government officials if they hold those beliefs. If you are a religious person — especially a conservative religious person — and this doesn’t unnerve you, I don’t know what to tell you:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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