Bernie's Attack on Christian Beliefs Was Wrong — But It Was for the Right Reasons
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently landed himself in hot water by chastising Trump appointee to the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, for his religious views. In his questioning, Sanders accused Vought, an Evangelical Christian, of bigotry due to Vought’s declaration that Muslims “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” The backlash Sanders faced for this line of questioning from Evangelical and conservative groups was as predictable as the defense provided by liberal and Muslim groups.
Sanders’ accusers argued he violated Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which states, in part, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” if not in letter, then at least in spirit. His defenders argued that Vought’s exclusionary interpretation of the Bible is bigoted and inflammatory.
The reality is, as usual, more nuanced than the partisans would like you to think. In this case, Sanders and his defenders are wrong because they failed to understand the nature of the issue. Heaven in Christianity is often interpreted to be exclusive to those who believe Jesus Christ was God in human form. Thus, Muslims who believe Jesus was a prophet but not God cannot meet this hurdle.
It is indeed possible that believing you are going to live for eternity in heaven while others are condemned to hell could have an impact on how you treat your fellow citizens. But it need not. The belief alone does not indicate anything about how you will behave in practice, and in fact making such a judgement is contrary to the teachings of Jesus — it is for God to judge, not man. Thus, Vought’s stated belief that Muslims and other non-Christians are “condemned” does not appear to be in itself enough to justify denying him the position at OMB.
While Sanders is wrong on the facts in this instance, he is right in his underlying reasoning. That is, the beliefs of individuals — religious or otherwise — do matter, are up for discussion, and can be disqualifying, regardless of Article VI’s protections. To illustrate, consider the case of Keith Ellison. Conservatives were unquestionably advocating for unconstitutional measures when they argued that Congress should create a law forcing Rep. Ellison (D-MN) to swear on the Bible instead of the Quran. However, there would be no such religious liberties violation for questioning his fitness for office if he held a conservative interpretation of Islam that advocated for certain elements of Shariah, such as the jizyah tax on non-Muslims, or the legalization of religious practices existing within certain Muslim-majority countries like female genital mutilation (FGM) or death for apostasy. This would not constitute discrimination, Islamophobia, or a violation of religious liberties, contrary to the view of some on the left.
Likewise, conservative Christians are disingenuous when they claim that efforts to outlaw LGBT discrimination in businesses that qualify as public accommodations is a violation of their religious liberties. Just as the government’s decision to outlaw racial discrimination in public accommodations was not a violation of the religious liberties of Southern Baptists or Mormons when these groups officially held racist religious views toward non-whites, it is likewise not a violation of religious liberties when applied to protect the LGBT community from discrimination.
Freedom of conscience, which encompasses religious liberty, is an essential protection provided by both our Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, questioning Quranic, Biblical, Vedic, or secular values violates neither the letter or the spirit of these protections, especially when these values run contrary to the liberal norms for which so many have fought. While Vought, Ellison, and everyone else have a right to believe whatever they like and may not be denied public office simply for holding religious beliefs, the beliefs themselves are open for questioning—and policies that run contrary to sincerely held religious beliefs do not in themselves constitute discrimination.