Senator Bernie Sanders was enraged at remarks made at a confirmation hearing by President Trump's nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought. The Atlantic's Emma Green wrote
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.”
"After an initial round of questions," Green observed, "Sanders began raising his voice and interrupting Vought as" the testimony moved to
Sanders: I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America, I really don’t know, probably a couple million. Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?
Vought: Senator, I am a Christian—
Sanders: I understand that you are a Christian. But this country is made up of people who are not just—I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have 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 tried to clarify how he thinks people of other traditions should be treated, referring to a doctrine known as imago dei. “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,” Vought said. “I believe that as a Christian, that’s how I should treat all individuals—”
Sanders interrupted again. “And do you think your statement that you put in that publication, ‘They do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ the son, and they stand condemned,’ do you think that’s respectful of other religions?” Vought replied that he wrote the post as a Christian alumnus of Wheaton, which “has a statement of faith that speaks clearly with regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.”
The senator concluded by remarking “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about. I will vote no.”
It would be plucking the low-hanging fruit to point out that, in this portion of his questioning, Senator Sanders confused an OMB nominee with an applicant for Office of the Senate Chaplain, in which consideration of the individual's religious belief should be considered relevant. And it may be irrelevant that Sanders is displaying a textbook case of irony by opposing a candidate becuase of his intolerant religious beliefs.
But Green is more generous, explaining
Sanders and Van Hollen seemed to be reacting to something bigger than a year-old blog post about a controversy at a Christian college. Trump “is trying to divide this country up,” Sanders said. From their perspective, this is what the exchange was really about: the sense that bigotry and discrimination have become nastier and more commonplace in recent months, which poses a direct threat to the democratic institutions they’re tasked with defending.
In a statement on Thursday, a spokesman for Sanders said, “In a democratic society, founded on the principle of religious freedom, we can all disagree over issues, but racism and bigotry—condemning an entire group of people because of their faith—cannot be part of any public policy.” The nomination of a candidate like Vought, “who has expressed such strong Islamaphobic language," the statement said, “is simply unacceptable.”
Generous to a fault, Green nonetheless recognizes
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. It did not stop groups including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Muslim Advocates from sending out press releases condemning Vought’s comments. The American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in, saying that it was Vought’s views which threatened the principle of religious freedom.
In this one instance, Sanders demonstrated a disturbing ignorance of the Constitution. He evinced also an ignorance - a less disturbing ignorance, for he is neither Rabbi Sanders, Father Sanders, nor Reverend Sanders- in Christianity and in the relationship between Christianity and Islam. He does not understand, further, that religious Muslims also have a negative view of religions other than theirs, and Sanders (one would hope and expect) would not disqualify someone for office because she is a devout Muslim. The First Amendment to the Constitution and Article VI, Section 3 of the document neatly dovetail.
Further, Vought did not exhibit "Islamaphobic language," for he expressed no phobia (fear) of, but simply a disagreement with, the religion. So did Jesus Christ, apparently, if the Gospel of John is to be believed. "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God," Jesus is reputed in 3:18 to have asserted. For those who might have missed it, in 14:6b he is said to have maintained "No one comes to the Father except through me." (He did not lack for self-assurance.)
No one alive can legitimately state definitively whether these verses are accurate, and belief or refutation remains a matter of opinion, not of fact or of "fake news." But they are there, in a book lots of people in the USA and elsewhere believe, and they cannot be wished away, by a United States Senator or anyone else.
Bernie Sanders' interrogation of Mr. Vought (as well as Senator Van Hollen's support of it) reminds us, as does the Supreme Court's recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, that there are powerful forces in this nation which do not recognize the dangers of entangling church and state.