Bernie Sanders, American Universalist
During a routine confirmation hearing for Deputy Director of the White House Budget Office on June 7, few were expecting a heated exchange about the technicalities of salvation to break through the white noise of questions about government regulations and fiscal prudence.
It began when Sen. Bernie Sanders took nominee Russell Vought to task over comments he had made about Muslims in a 2016 article for the conservative website The Resurgent defending Wheaton College’s firing of a professor for wearing a headscarf in solidarity with persecuted Muslims. Vought wrote of Muslims that they “do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.”
Sanders introduced these two sentences into the record to accuse Vought of Islamophobia, which Vought parried by distinguishing his theological convictions from his civic duties, saying, “I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.” Barreling past this remark, Sanders continued to browbeat Vought for failing to demonstrate an adequate respect toward other religions.
As the Internet commentariat ably showed in the days immediately following this exchange (including Alex Caro’s particularly astute diagnosis on this site), Sanders’s line of questioning — besides walking a very fine constitutional line — also erroneously assumed a transparent connection between one’s private beliefs and one’s activities as a public servant. Affronting and even offensive as Vought’s rhetoric may be, it offers at best only partial insight into the shape of the ligatures binding his behavior to his belief.
Perhaps the most striking moment of the brief tête-à-tête occurred, however, when a visibly agitated Sanders remarked that “this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” Vought’s beliefs, he implied, constitute a betrayal of the nation’s essence and purpose. Fellow senator Chris Van Hollen picked up Sanders’s critique several minutes later from a different angle when he told Vought that “part of being a Christian, in my view, is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can see their God.”
As Michael Gerson observed in The Washington Post, the two liberal legislators seemed to be demanding that the principle of “liberal fairness” be “applied on a cosmic scale.” In trying to critique a religious worldview they clearly find repugnant, both men stumbled, perhaps unwittingly, into arguing for universal salvation. Moreover, they seemed to suggest that a belief in universal salvation was a precondition not just for being a good Christian but for being a good American.
Surprising though Sanders’ unconscious equation of Americanness to a universalist faith may be, he’s not the first to make it. In fact, this identification is baked into the movement that began in the 1770s when the British preacher John Murray began itinerating in New England preaching universal salvation to rural farmers and poor urbanites. By yoking Enlightenment rationalism, Christian mysticism, and political egalitarianism together, Universalists created a communitarian theology that appealed deeply to a class of people intoxicated with the promises of the American revolution and disillusioned with the pieties of Calvinist orthodoxy. This potent combination of influences has led one recent historian of the movement to call eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Universalists the United States’s true “spiritual republicans.”
Despite his popularity, John Murray was allergic to institutionalizing universalism and confining this expansive faith to just another church. There is a fair amount of historical irony, then, in the fact that he was responsible — albeit reluctantly — for bringing one of the first major church-state cases to court.
In 1783, Murray sued the First Parish of Gloucester Massachusetts for denying his fledgling congregation recognition as a legitimate religion, the material effect of which was to divert taxpayer money intended to support local preachers (or “public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality,” to quote the Massachusetts constitution) away from his church. The justification for this denial was that Murray and the other Universalists represented a moral threat to the commonwealth. As one detractor fretted, in words that sound eerily similar to Sanders’ and Van Hollen’s critiques of Vought, “if this kind of preaching is encouraged, it may prove as hurtful to civil society as to religion.”
Murray eventually won the case in 1786, striking an initial blow against Massachusetts’ Congregationalist establishment, although this bulwark of piety would not be fully dismantled until 1833. In the aftermath of this case, the Universalist Church experienced steady growth throughout the nineteenth century through the efforts of charismatic leaders like Hosea Ballou, but eventually weakened to the point where in 1961 it combined with the Unitarian Church to form what is now the Unitarian Universalist Association. But the universalist faith, at once abiding and protean, has always spilled over the denominational vessels created to contain it, forming rivulets that continue to course through our culture. Indeed, prior to Sanders’ recent outburst, universalism last erupted into the public sphere in 2011 when the evangelical preacher Rob Bell declared himself a believer in universal salvation in his best seller, Love Wins.
The history of universalism in the U.S. is not incidental to Sanders’ and Van Hollen’s visceral reactions to Vought’s theological remarks on Islam. Both men gave voice to an enduring intuition in the cosmic equality of all people that has been a vital component of American religion since the founding of the republic. Eighteenth-century Universalists believed that when individuals came to understand that Christ’s death had provided salvation for all, they would recognize the ties binding the entire human family together and work toward its improvement. These men and women knew how to speak to their orthodox neighbors and how to excite them to work for the common good of all in the present with the faith that all would also be together at the end.
In the spontaneous exchange about national identity, theology, and civic duty that erupted amid Russell Vought’s hearing, neither Sanders nor Van Hollen presented anything approaching a substantive theological retort to Vought’s exclusivism. Instead, both poured fuel onto the fire of an evangelical victimization narrative by revealing not only how little they understood the theology they were critiquing but how little they regarded it. Oddly, they sounded much like the stuffed-shirt ministers eager to deny John Murray funds for his little Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1783.
That Sanders’ outburst occurred mere days before The New York Times printed a story about the renewal of the religious left only serves to underscore the work those on the left have yet to do to communicate effectively a political and theological vision that is expansive, compassionate, and egalitarian, especially to those who believe — as many theological giants before them have — that large swaths of the human population have been and will continue to be shut out of heaven’s gates.
Sanders knows how to do this. In September 2015, he spoke movingly before students and faculty at Liberty University. Standing before an evangelical audience, he presented his economic message in all its moral urgency through quotations drawn from Pope Francis, the Hebrew prophet Amos, and the gospels. It was an object lesson in what the philosopher Jeffrey Stout calls “immanent criticism,” that “respectful, sincere, nonmanipulative” practice of persuading someone whose worldview differs from one’s own by inhabiting and speaking to them from within that worldview. The early Universalists knew how to persuade their fellow citizens of a comprehensive vision of the cosmos that left no one out. As Sanders continues to pursue his fight for justice and morality, he might do well to take a lesson from them.