What is Bernie Sanders Doing?

This is why many evangelicals turn to a strongman like Donald Trump. They believe that their religious liberties are under attack and Trump will defend them.

Whatever one thinks about Russel Vought’s religious beliefs or the way he handled Bernie’s grilling, what happened here should concern all of us.  Even atheists are concerned.

This seems to me to be a clear violation of Article VI of the United States Constitution: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Here is a taste of Emma Green’s piece on the incident at The Atlantic:

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.”

Later, during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, Sanders brought this up again. “Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” he asked Vought.

“Absolutely not, Senator,” Vought replied. “I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.”

Where Sanders saw Islamophobia and intolerance, Vought believed he was stating a basic principle of his belief as an evangelical Christian: that faith in Jesus is the only pathway to salvation. And where Sanders believed he was policing bigotry in public office, others believed he was imposing a religious test. As Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement, “Even if one were to excuse Senator Sanders for not realizing that all Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation, it is inconceivable that Senator Sanders would cite religious beliefs as disqualifying an individual for public office.”

Read the entire piece here.

Many conservative evangelicals are likely to turn this into another culture war issue. Few will try to use this incident to think more deeply about how to balance the exclusivist claims of religious faith with participation in a pluralistic society.  The former is easy, and because it is easy it often becomes our default position.  The latter takes hard work–work I am not sure many evangelicals are interested in, or capable of, performing.

12 thoughts on “What is Bernie Sanders Doing?

  1. As an adult convert to evangelicalism *after* the culture wars of the 1990s, I actually find it hard to understand a default position toward interpreting things as culture war. And as an academic in a stereotypically “liberal” discipline (who also converted to Christianity in one of the least Christianized cities in America), I never expect people will agree with me on anything informed by my faith (which, as an evangelical, I try to make everything!). It is never easy to reflect how to live faithfully as a Christian in a world system set up in hostility to my Lord, but far easier that than figuring out how to “strategize” about “defeating” (merely human) “enemies.” (“For our battle is not against flesh and blood…” Ephesians 6:12). I thought the Atlantic article, at least, did a good job of distinguishing how (some) evangelicals treat individuals (imago dei) from how they treat theological views (condemn errors). Losing the former leads to unloving orthodoxy, old-fashioned Fundamentalist double separationism, and retreat from the world; losing the latter leads to a replacing true love with flabby “acceptance,” meaningless advocacy, and merely nominal Christianity.

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  2. John, I have been reading “here” since before the move but haven’t commented before. I did make a response to a post on this subject at the American Creation Blog, if I remember correctly you know where that is, that I won’t re-post here. However, I did go to the original video clip at the Huffngton Post and it provides a bit more context not present in the shortened clip above – I cite the HP article at the ACB. As has already been mentioned, Sanders is addressing a question of religious freedom for minority religious positions.

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    • How is an individual’s theological convictions relevant to holding the position of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget?

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      • The question facing Sanders, who is considering someone applying for public service, is can someone with a very specific religious conviction be expected to treat the public fairly and lawfully if that public does not share that conviction. It is Sanders job to probe. Because I shorthanded my comment I’ll share a bit of the context that can be gotten from the original and fuller video clip that I mentioned. Since I’m not a regular commenter here I won’t post the link to the Huffington Post article but it’s not hard to find.

        Sanders is addressing the concerns raised in a letter sent by three organizations: 1) the Africa-America Institute, 2) Bend the Arc Jewish Action, and 3) the Muslim Advocates. The gist of the concern is Christian bigotry against minority American religions (not to mention agnostics and atheists) – a religious freedom issue.

        As a representative of the American people in an openly pluralistic nation the notion of exceptionalism and exclusion by the majority against the minority is as old as the American Revolution and the Constitution. That a dominant religion, or practitioner, can fairly accommodate minority religious positions as a government official is a fair line of questioning. The broad arc of Christianity also includes more liberal positions than Mr. Vought expreses, that being that there is only one God and that all religions are expressions of that one God. The early church father, Justin Martyr, even believed that the Pagan philosopher Aristotle was describing the same God of New Testament Christianity.

        Sanders was doing his sworn duty to “protect and defend” the Constitution in looking out for his constituent’s interests as equal citizens under the law. He was also being mindful of a religious pluralistic tradition that has kept religious wars and violent discriminatory actions from invading America’s soil (for reference see Old Europe). The kind of violent actions imparted to minority sects such as Baptists, among others, in Colonial America.

        I suspect that this would not be an issue among Evangelicals if Sanders was grilling a Muslim, Jew or atheist, who was being considered for public office, about personal statements that appear hostile and bigoted toward Christianity,

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    • The problem with that argument is that Sanders never once asked him how he would administer the law and if he could do so fairly given his religious convictions. (again, assuming the deputy director of the OMB would even have any opportunity to discriminate based on religion). He asked him repeatedly about his personal theological convictions in the area of soteriology. Then, he stated that those personal beliefs are a disqualifying factor. That is not upholding the Constitution, it is violating the “no religious tests.” You can try to spin it any way you want with “context,” but his words were clear. The fact that there are broader and more inclusive versions of Christianity is entirely irrelevant. And, yes, questioning any person of any faith about his personal views of salvation as a qualification for holding public office would be problematic.

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      • Mr. Vought was not being responsive and was trying to run out the clock by endlessly repeating his prepared statement. Mr. Vought very easily could have demonstrated an understanding of his soterioloical beliefs as being independent from his secular obligations to all of the American people if confirmed to an office of the government. Sanders did not dismiss him for being Christian or orthodox, per se, but apparently judged Vought as someone that could create a hostile environment for minority religious positions based on an extremely rigid theological interpretation. We are in a period of expanding intolerance of Muslims, Jews and non-Christians generally, and as a legislator in the temporal realm Sanders has to be mindful of his role to protect the minority from the potential wrath of the majority.

        Broadly speaking this is not a religious test but an individual judgement by an experienced legislator between two competing religious concerns. There is no broad-based or specific legislative religious test being imposed. I’m sure that Mr. Vought will do just fine if the majority of the committee judges him to be qualified.

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    • “The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” – Thomas Jefferson

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  3. If Christians can reasonably fear persecution because of Sanders’s statements, then how much more can Jews and Muslims fear persecution because of Vought’s? It’s also true and Biblical that God loves Jews and Muslims and desires them to be saved, just like everyone else (this is a generic claim), but Vought didn’t emphasize that truth. What you focus on — condemnation or grace — determines the actual contours of your belief. Vought focused on condemnation. It was irrelevant even in the context of the Wheaton controversy, in which people like Vought mistook a historical and textual claim about the continuity of the three monotheistic faiths for a theological and ontological one.

    Just think for one minute how annoyed Jews must feel when Christians claim to be worshipping the same God.

    I have seen little to no attempt by Evangelicals (who make up about 25% of all Americans, and Christians make up about 70%) to empathize with or understand the points of view of people who are minority faiths like Jews (2%) or Muslims (1%) when statements like Vought’s are made publicly.

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  4. I am a Christian and I think that what Bernie’s intent was to protect religious freedom not attack it. I do see his point that if someone publicly states that people of other religious groups are basically inferior and are damned to hell and then wish to represent these same people that could be problematic. I also would not want someone in public office from a non Christian religion who wrote an article about how Christians are inferior. We can’t just go around attacking other religions and then repeating our tired old mantra that our religious freedoms are under attack. It is so hypocritical! It makes us look ignorant. Has Christianity at times been under attack throughout the world? Sure. But lets not ignore the damage the has been done to other people under the name of Christianity! Is Christianity under attack currently in the United States? I don’t personally feel like anyone is trying to prevent me from having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and I have not seen in my lifetime another American unable to pursue a relationship with Jesus or to go to church or to speak about Jesus (with the exception of as a public servant) . So in my experience I don’t agree with this premise.
    On a personal note I vote for the presidential candidate I find the most Christ like in their actions and unfortunately both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seem to me to be sociopathic and were therefore highly immoral choices, had I voted for either one of them I would have been complicit in their lying, corruption, greed and all of the harm they would inflict upon this world during their presidency. I do not want to have blood on my hands so to speak. The lessor of two evils is still evil so I choose not to vote the lesser of two evils. I vote with my conscious. I vote for what is right. I vote how I believe Jesus would vote.

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  5. I think the line of questioning was handled badly. But another part of the context that I didn’t see in the previous discussion is the overt hostility toward Muslims in the Trump administration. The context of Vought’s comments was the conflict at Wheaton over the “same God” statement by Dr Hawkins that lead to her firing/resignation.

    As a Wheaton Grad I followed the controversy closely. And I think Vought was wrong in his post about the matter. But in context of his service for Trump the travel ban is in court as a religious discrimination case against Muslims. Several Trump officials, and Trump, have mentioned the possibility of Muslim internment camps. And there has been a widespread movement that has suggested that Islam is a political not religious movement and therefore not deserving of religious freedom.

    So I don’t think that the way Sanders handled it was appropriate or helpful. But I do think there is some context to the line of questioning that had it been handled better would have been appropriate.

    We need to be standing for religious freedom when it matters to others, not just ourselves. Many, certainly not all, that are complaining now have not been raising concerns about religious discrimination with Sanders have not raised any concerns about religious discrimination against muslims as a matter of government policy. (Or raised concerns about a rhetoric of violence toward muslims as a cultural movement.)

    This has been reported as an isolated incident in every article I have read instead of in context of a wider policy discussion and both reporters and proponents of religious freedom shout know better.

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      • But the connection I think matters. Hawkins originally wore the Hijab because of the rise of Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims. It is Trump that really was the start of her removal.

        So it is interesting that Vought, a Trump appointee, wrote against her position, which is being brought up here by Sanders.

        It is interesting to me that many that are bringing this up, as well as the journalists, aren’t making any connections to the larger religious freedom conversation. It is not that two wrongs make a right. Sanders is wrong in his approach and method here. But the context of the rise is Christians repudiation of religious freedom for non-Christians matters.

        Russ Moore is in trouble right now in part because of his support for religious freedom for Muslims and his open denunciation of Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants and for Moore’s advocacy of paying attention to minority concerns like Black Lives Matters.

        Hawkins was paying attention to the lack of concern by standard White Evangelicals of discrimination against Muslims and was standing in solidarity with Muslims in their oppressions. (Not coincidental that she is an African American woman in a predominately white space and saw the oppression.)

        But Vought and many others within the White Evangelical world do not see how their rhetoric and support of Trump is oppressive to both ethic and religious minorities.

        The context of Sanders line of questioning matters and it is being ignored.

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