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No Religious Tests: Personal Belief and Public Service

It's an old saying that there are two things that one should never talk about around the dinner table: religion and politics. Some formulation of this saying has also been applied to other aspects of contemporary social life, including in the workplace and when one is spending time with friends. Though I have never found the political aspect of this saying to be true, Americans still don’t discuss religion. However, religion is an important part of billions of people’s lives and it is essential that religion is discussed, especially with regards to the intersection of religion and politics. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss Bernie Sanders and the line of questioning he took at a Senate hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought as deputy director of the Office of Personnel and Management.

While Senator Sanders and Mr. Vought had heated exchanges on a number of issues, the moment I want to focus in on has to do with an article Mr. Vought wrote for The Resurgent, a conservative website, on the subject of a Wheaton College professor’s comment that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, a comment for which she was suspended. At this point, it is important to note that Mr. Vought is a Wheaton alumni and Wheaton College is an evangelical Protestant school. The quote from the article that Senator Sanders kept coming back to was “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." Senator Sanders denounced this statement as Islamophobic and hateful, a claim denied by Mr. Vought who went on to say that “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.” This was not enough for Senator Sanders, who kept returning to the first quote and, at the end of the hearing, indicated he would not vote for Mr. Vought because of his perceived Islamophobia.

Though I am somewhat skeptical of the claims made by some conservatives that this incident proves Sanders and the rest of the Left are anti-Christian, I do believe that this incident does point toward a fundamental misunderstanding of basic Christian belief as well as the broader nature of religion on the part of Bernie Sanders and some on the Left.

To fully understand Mr. Vought’s statement and why it is not Islamophobic, one must understand a few essential tenets of Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular. The Protestant tradition, to which Mr. Vought belongs, encompasses many different denominations with varying beliefs about many issues but are united by a few common beliefs. One of these is the belief that people achieve salvation by faith in God alone, meaning it is not good works that lead to salvation but instead only faith in God and his son Jesus Christ, an idea that can be traced back to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. One notion often associated with this belief is that all of humanity is condemned and only God, through his son, can save humanity from condemnation, though it is again worth noting that even under the common umbrella of Protestantism beliefs on the afterlife differ quite dramatically depending on denominational and personal preference.

Some people would take exception to this belief. However, I would point out that claims of exclusivity define all of the major Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The First Commandment given to Moses by God in the Hebrew Scripture reads “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” while the Shahada, a common Islamic statement of faith reads “There is no god but God. Mohammed is the messenger of God.” At a theological level, each faith views itself as the sole path towards God. This belief does not necessarily require any adherent to hold bigoted views towards people of other faiths and this fact is important to properly understanding Mr. Vought’s statement. Mr. Vought is not by any means asserting that people of other religious traditions are bad people. Theologically speaking, their “condemnation” is only part of the general condemnation of mankind and no judgement is being made as to their worth as human beings. He simply has a different personal belief on how one achieves salvation and one’s personal belief on salvation has nothing to do with one’s ability to be a public servant.

Of course, this is not to say every Jew, Muslim, or Christian need believe that people of other of other faiths cannot achieve eternal life. Indeed, according to a Pew Research survey, in the United States 66% of Christians, 79% of Jews, and 65% of Muslims say that many religions can lead to eternal life. However, the beliefs of those who disagree are no less valid and personal religious beliefs should not be disqualifying for public service if everyone agrees to treat those of other faiths with the dignity and respect they’d give one of their coreligionists. If this last requirement had been his line of questioning, Sanders could have established a much more productive discourse on the relationship of personal belief and public service while also avoiding the accusation that he violated Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly forbids religious tests as a qualification for office.

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