PODCAST: Senator Sanders and the Religious Litmus Test – Should Christians Be Excluded from Public Office?

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa January 27, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTX24BL7

A few comments in regard to Senator Bernie Sanders’ comments about whether a Christian who believes in salvation in Christ alone should serve in political office.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170612-SenSandersandtheReligiousLitmusTest.mp3

Notes:
I try not to talk too much about political events on this podcast, in part because I’d like it to stay relevant for future listeners and in part because I don’t want my own private passions to lead me to tie my faith too closely with my political opinions with the result that I discourage or mislead my listeners.

I did, however, post a short episode a number of months back where I challenged, both as a Christian and as an American, Republican and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to a heckler about immigration.

Again as a Christian and as an American, I’m challenging the recent comments of Senator Bernie Sanders, the sometimes Democrat/sometimes independent, self-identified Democratic Socialist. In an exchange with Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Sanders made some very controversial statements about the religious beliefs of Vought seemingly disqualifying him from public office. Here’s the exchange:

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. 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?

Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

There are two separate messes to untangle here. The first has to do with Sanders’ seeming ignorance of history and religion and the second has to do with him creating a religious test for public office.

As for Sanders’ seeming ignorance, upon what basis does he argue that those holding that only their religious faith can guarantee salvation are not “who this country is supposed to be about?” Many of the founding fathers were Christians who believed this very thing. Should they be wiped from our nation’s history? Is Sanders unaware of their beliefs, or is he arguing for a radical revolution in American politics which excludes those holding to traditional religious views from public office?

Sanders himself expressed concern about Islamophobia, yet most Muslims, even the many who believe in peaceful co-existence with other religious faiths, would likewise argue that Islam is the path to salvation to the exclusion of other religious traditions. This idea is consistent with the Qur’an itself which tells us in 3:85 that:
“And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.”

Should conservative but patriotic Muslims therefore be excluded from public office? If Sanders is consistent, he would have to say yes. But this would certainly be an example of the “Islamophobia” that he seems so concerned about.

Sanders needs to understand that religions are exclusivistic. They tend to say, “this is the way, and other ways are not the right way.” There are Muslims and Christians who would nuance this claim, arguing that someone who loves God but has been mislead into following a wrong path might still attain salvation by God’s grace. But even the most exclusivist Christians and Muslims are capable of serving a people composed of many different beliefs and backgrounds. My projection of your eternal destiny doesn’t need to stop me from serving or loving you now, after all.

Now to the second issue–the religious litmus test. Those who have listened to my podcast before know that I have mixed feelings about how Christians often choose to get involved in politics. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

America is a country that has enshrined freedom of religion into its founding documents. If we are to be true to this principle, we cannot exclude anyone from public office on the basis of his or her views about salvation or the afterlife if they are capable of serving everyone regardless of their religious beliefs. A Christian or Muslim may serve the people of different religions even if he or she disagrees with them. Someone espousing what Sanders is–that those who are religious should not be accepted into public office or that many of his religious constituents are not what America “is supposed to be about”–cannot.

What Sanders is saying is not only radicalism, but bigotry. It’s bigotry when Donald Trump claims that he wants to stop Muslims from entering our country and its bigotry when Bernie Sanders says Christians should not hold public office.

Someone that bigoted or that ignorant representing his constituents in public office is, frankly, “not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” America should be about true tolerance, not religious or anti-religious authoritarianism.

I’m not one of those Christians who tends to claim that the sky is falling any time we don’t come out on top in relation to some social or political issue. I also think that a lot of the distrust that many have for the church is to a large extent our fault.

At the same time, we ought to want to live in a country where we are not blocked from participating, nor should we desire to block others from contributing or serving in the political sphere. What Senator Sanders said here is very troubling to me, and what’s more troubling is that his sentiments are not only his own. He speaks for many secular-minded individuals who think religious people shouldn’t be allowed to participate in politics or the public square.

If we don’t look for ways to unite around shared goals and values, our ever-widening divisions will tear us apart as a people. Senator Sanders comments give us a preview of what that might look like.

2 thoughts on “PODCAST: Senator Sanders and the Religious Litmus Test – Should Christians Be Excluded from Public Office?”

  1. To be fair, I think we have to acknowledge that the statement “all Muslims stand condemned before God,” is not a self explanatory statement. What moral duty does this condemnation require of the faithful? If history is any indication, this belief as expressed by those in political power, has typically been the stuff of nightmares.
    Vought, in my opinion, is a terrible apologist for his beliefs. And if we are to be fair with Sanders, he should at least be presented with a reasonable defense. Something beyond “You see, I am a Christian, and my statement is based on Christian beliefs.”
    During his speech at Liberty University, Sanders showed a willingness to reach out to people of differing Religious beliefs, stating that “while we do not agree on everything, there are some things I believe we can work together on”.
    I think a stronger apologetic defense would have highlighted the fact that Sanders was taking issue with beliefs about the afterlife. That calling these beliefs into question is beyond the Governments role. That if his real concern is with how he will perform in his appointment – a more appropriate question to ask would be “how does Jesus teach me to treat other people”.
    I do think it was inappropriate for the opposition to go fishing in this Wheaton publication for something to pin on Vought. But I don’t think Sanders is faking concern. We are seeing a tremendous surge in white nationalism and racism – much of it appears to be inspired by our president. I anticipate much more religious scrutiny in the future.

    1. I agree that Vought did a poor job clarifying his perspective, but I also was puzzled by Sanders’ confusion in regard to Vought’s original statement. I don’t see how Sanders can claim to represent a large number of Christian constituents if he doesn’t know enough about their beliefs to avoid wrongly claiming that they should be thrown out of the public square for being unamerican.

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