Sanders and the Religious Test


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.

This is an excerpt from a series of questions between Senator Bernie Sanders and the potential deputy White House budget director, Russell Vought, who is an evangelical Christian in his confirmation hearing.  The Atlantic called out Bernie for imposing a religious test on nominees. If we’re a pluralistic society, then this includes evangelical Protestants, and no religion should be a bar from service.

That’s right as far as it goes. But I did want to challenge a few responses to Bernie’s line of questioning.

“A candidate for public office was openly asked to relinquish the unanimous teaching of his 2,000-year old faith in order to serve the American republic,” says Samuel James.  “All Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation,” says Russell Moore. “The heart of the Christian faith is this… The only way for sinners to escape condemnation and to be reconciled to God is through Jesus–” says Denny Burke. And Friendly Atheist takes it as a given that to be a Christian believes all other religions are condemned.

Except that it isn’t so. I know of no mainline Protestant denomination who has ever made this claim, including the one I serve, the United Church of Christ. I have given a counter example, in discussion.: the United Methodist Church. I would argue that the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church have made statements that push against religious exclusivism. The mainline and the Roman Catholic church have been in the forefront for interfaith dialog.  And Pew reports that over half of all American Christians believe other religions offer a path towards salvation.

This is an important point, not just because as a liberal Protestant who is committed to religious pluralism, I hate to have my views erased in the public discussion. But it is also important because it means that Bernie Sanders was *not* saying one could not be a Christian and serve in government. What he could not understand is how one could serve all the people in a diverse society while believing most people are condemned.

But as Friendly Atheist points out, then the question should not be one of theology, which is not in the purview of the US Senate, nor should it be. Instead the correct question is :

The question Sanders should’ve asked is whether Vought’s beliefs about non-Christian people would ever influence his treatment of them under the law. Would he treat Muslims (or LGBT people, for that matter) the same way he treats Christians?

(Why any of this is relevant, since Vought would work in the Office of Management and Budget, is another matter.)

It is hard to see how it is relevant to the office. But it is a relevant question to Betsy DeVos whose religious beliefs seem to influence her decision that LGBT students do not need protections from the Dept. of Education in public schools. Or Katherine Gorka who has called for profiling Muslims. These are examples of one’s beliefs impacting other people under your purview. And how you intend to act toward’s others in your role is appropriate, needed even.

So a general ban on religious discussion in Congress is not appropriate. But it has to be relevant to the carrying out of your responsibilities.

Though sometimes, elected officials do drag religion into these discussions. Bernie did so and it was not appropriate.

In our Oklahoma legislature, where religion is often cited for legislation, both parties get drug into theological debates. The discussion over God’s sovereignty came about during a debate on a genetic abnormality abortion ban, which excluded exemptions for rape and incest. Because God can use rape for a good end, it was said that we should not allow for such exemptions.

To then criticize those who carried that theological discussion further on the legislative floor, appears to ignore the way that religious beliefs really can find themselves in legislation which impacts the rest of us. So again, a blanket ban on religious discussion will not do. But that line, has to be that it impacts the rest of us, it impacts the carrying out of duties.

Because as citizens we have the right to know what our public officials are doing and why, even if religious reasoning is involved. What we don’t have a right to do is a.exclude a person because of their religion b.question private religious beliefs that are not relevant at the job and will not impact the rest of us.

Bernie crossed that line, not because he was attacking a tenant all Christians hold. He was attacking a view some Christians hold that in no way impacted Vought’s ability to carry out his job.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Blog, Feature, News, Politics, Religion

3 replies »

  1. Bernie Sanders is NOT what America has traditionally been about. In Sanders’s worldview ANY Christian who actually BELIEVES the CONTENT of the Christian faith, and has dared, at any time and any place, to EXPRESS it, is ipso facto to be marginalized, excluded, ostracized and demonized. And Sanders demonstrates the very same right here. Sanders’s presumption that any genuinely believing Christian is, ipso facto, “not what this country is about” is on a par with Hitler’s presumption that any Jew was not what Germany was about.

    • The point of my piece is that is not the case. Most Christians do not believe that their religion is the only way, Sanders is not attacking Christianity. He’s attacking a view some hold. I would too. But as a pastor, discussing theology, that is within my purview, as a US Senator, given his role in this committee, it was *not* his responsibility.

  2. “not because he was attacking a tenant all Christians hold”

    Dwight, I believe the word you’re looking for is tenet. A tenant is a renter.

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