What Bernie Sanders should have asked Russell Vought

US Senator Bernie Sanders’s questioning of Russell Vought at a confirmation hearing exposed his own ignorance of religion and the US Constitution as well demonstrating the inherent illiberalism of political progressives.

Russell Vought is Trump’s nominee for Deputy White House Budget Director. At a confirmation hearing, Sanders brought up some blog posts that Vought wrote in defense of his alma mater Wheaton College in relation to whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Vought 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.

In a video, Sanders questioned Vought, saying “I understand you are a Christian. 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?” and “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”

Sanders’s response means that believing that some people will go to hell disqualifies them from holding public office. Yet this flies in the face of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution which declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Sanders did not back down, rather, his office dug in over this issue.  A spokesperson 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.”

Even mainstream media outlets have trouble supporting Sanders on this score:

Writing for NPR, Camila Domonoske pointed out that belief in hell is not unique to evangelicalism or Christianity. The general Muslim view is that those who reject the message of Muhammad are damned, but just like in Christianity, there’s a vast spectrum of beliefs. But in a fierce irony, NPR contacted Sanders’ office and inquired if the senator would have challenged a devout Muslim who believed non-Muslims are condemned to hell, in the same way that he challenged Vought. Sanders’s office said “yes.” The irony is that saying Muslims are going to hell is Islamophobic, yet Sanders is willing to oppose Muslims in public office if they have the same beliefs about Christians when it comes to an eternal judgment.

According to Emma Green writing for The Atlantic, “The exchange shows just how tense the political environment under Trump has become. But it’s also evidence of the danger of using religion to deem someone unfit to serve in government … It was a remarkable moment: a Democratic senator lecturing a nominee for public office on the correct interpretation of Christianity in a confirmation hearing putatively about the Office of Management and Budget. ” Green is right on the money when she concludes: “As the demands for tolerance in America become greater, the bounds of acceptance can also become tighter. Ironically, that pits acceptance of religious diversity against the freedom of individual conscience.”

Now, Sanders’s mistake was to focus on Vought’s religious beliefs, especially about hell, and who goes there, rather than questioning him about his career, credentials, behaviour, and views of financial management – which is kinda sorta what he’s being nominated for.

But I think I know what Sanders’s should have asked Vought:

Mr. Vought, given your belief that those who do not know Christ – including Muslims and Jews like me – are condemned and go to hell,  how can I possibly be sure that you will treat Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or atheists with any sense of decency, respect, or fairness?

Now that, I think is a valid question, rather than some kind of religious test whereby people who believe in hell cannot hold public office.

While Sanders thinks he was defending religious diversity, in fact, he was doing the opposite. He was creating a public policy on the appropriateness of beliefs about the hereafter and using it as a criterion to disqualify someone from holding public office.  He was limiting religious diversity by insisting that certain religious beliefs place a person beyond the bounds of common decency. That type of stance creates divisions rather than explores how people with different views of an afterlife can live and work together.

Legal philosopher Dr. John Inazu has written to Senator Sanders, pointing out that he took an ill-conceived approach, and recommending that he read his book Confident Pluralism. I second that motion and I really hope that Sanders takes the time to read it so he can figure out how to live with people – Christians and Muslims – who believe in a hell.