Who would have thought that a confirmation hearing for the Director of the Office of Management and Budget would lead to a national controversy over religious freedom and intolerance. But that's exactly what happened as Bernie Sanders questioned Russell Vought on his Christian beliefs, some of which Sanders found objectionable and were alleged to make him unfit for office. In case you aren't familiar with the exchange you can watch it in the video clip above, or read the transcript below.
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.
Following this exchange there was a media firestorm of various opinions. Senator Sanders issued a press release that reiterated his views that Vought's views were problematic for public official. In a subsequent interview on CNN, while he acknowledged the right of anyone to believe whatever they want in their personal life, nevertheless, he maintained to believe as Vought does that Muslim theology does not lead to salvation contributes to intolerance and Islamophobia. In other responses to the exchange, the Muslim Advocates organization put forward a statement equating Vought's views with the denigration of Islam and bigotry, many conservative and Christian writers took Sanders to task for wanting to impose an unconstitutional religious test for public office, and National Public Radio discussed whether believing in hell was intolerant.
In this post I'd like to contribute to the conversation and add to what has already been said by noting what was missed by both men in their public exchange. The issues that undergirded their exchange, what was said and unsaid, represent significant issues for discussion and careful modeling for a better way forward.
I begin with the position of Senator Sanders. His idea that Christian exclusivism, the idea for Christians that only their religious system is true and leads to salvation, is to be equated with intolerance. First, we should recognize that Christians aren't alone in this view. The world's religions involve irreconcilable differences on the most foundational issues, including salvation, or however humanity's prolblems and the solution are construed. Each of the religions holds that their view of the world is the correct one, and that other religious visions are skewed. So if Christian exclusivism prevents someone from holding public office, so do other forms, including Muslim.
But the broader concern for me is Sanders' mistaken idea that religious exclusivism equals intolerance. To be sure, there are Christians who are intolerant of other people's religious expression, but that isn't necessarily the case. The vast majority of Christians in the world hold that God has done something unique and salvific through Jesus that hasn't been done in other religions, but for many Christians this exclusivism doesn't lead them to bigotry toward their neighbors. For the last three years I've been part of a grant research project funded by the Louisville Institute where our Multi-faith Matters team put together case studies of conservative evangelical churches pursuing positive multi-faith encounters in their neighborhoods. These churches are filled with people who believe in the exclusivity of Christianity, but they love and care for their neighbors in a variety of religious traditions, including Muslims. Several of them combat Islamophobia. Sanders' heart is in the right place, wanting to ensure that we have public leaders in place who do not exacerbate anti-Islamic sentiment. But work toward a healthy religious pluralism is not inconsistent with Christian exclusivism.
Then there's Vought's position. I appreciate his interest in standing behind an earlier written position he took on Christian exclusivism in connection with a case at Wheaton College (although that controversy is open to debate), but Vought had his own blind spot. Even though he did mention his view that all human beings are created in God's image, he was so concerned with defending his own religious convictions that he was not able to hear and feel the concern that Sanders has, one echoed by many Muslims have in the United States. In the Trump era especially, they feel like they are under siege, as evidenced by the increasing number of violent attacks on Muslims, the proposed travel ban, and the recent national anti-sharia marches. For Sanders, the idea that Muslims stand "condemned," was not understood as the articulation of a theological belief about soteriology. Instead, it led to fears that, if confirmed, Vought would contribute to anti-Muslim sentiment through the use of his public office. We evangelicals need to be sensitive to the fears and concerns of others, and carefully communicate through word and deed that faithfulness to our convictions does not mean bigotry toward our multi-religious neighbors.
This leads me to one final thought. In a good column in response to this issue in The Washington Post, Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote, "Coming up with a language that allows us to express our distinct beliefs without denigrating others is also a crucial task for a democratic society. And we haven't figured it out just yet." I agree with the first part of his statement, but not the second. We do indeed need to use a language, not to mention a feeling, that expresses our religious convictions with respect. But how to do this has been figured out, it just needs greater exposure. At the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we pursue an approach that is informed by a variety of disciplines, and which is put into practice in relationships wherein we work through our deeply held convictions, we recognize our irreconcilable differences, and converse with each other respectfully. This allows us to hold our differences in a peaceful tension, and permits work together for the common good.
This exchange was a teachable moment. It's a pity that Sanders and Vought missed an opportunity to discuss important issues of politics and religion that continue to divide us, and model a helpful way forward beyond the bitterness of a fractured nation.