Later, during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, Sanders brought this up again. “Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” he asked Vought.
“Absolutely not, Senator,” Vought replied. “I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.”
Where Sanders saw Islamophobia and intolerance, Vought believed he was stating a basic principle of his belief as an evangelical Christian: that faith in Jesus is the only pathway to salvation. And where Sanders believed he was policing bigotry in public office, others believed he was imposing a religious test. As Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement, “Even if one were to excuse Senator Sanders for not realizing that all Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation, it is inconceivable that Senator Sanders would cite religious beliefs as disqualifying an individual for public office.”
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.
Quoted in the context of his piece, Vought’s statement about Muslims carries a different meaning from what Sanders was implying: He was deconstructing Hawkins’s theological claims about the relationship between Islam and Christianity. “Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God who is fully divine (and became fully human),” Vought wrote. “If Christ is not God, he cannot be the necessary substitute on our behalf for the divine retribution that we deserve.” He believed Hawkins’s statement created “serious theological confusion” about “what it means to be in relationship with or know the one, true God.”
That’s where the passage Sanders cited comes in. Citing the Gospels of Luke and John, Vought explains that Muslims “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
In John 8:19, “Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” In Luke 10:16, Jesus says, “The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” And in John 3:18, Jesus says, “Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
But Sanders clearly saw the statement a claim about Islam, rather than a claim about the exclusivity of Christianity. After an initial round of questions, the exchange between Sanders and Vought became tense—Sanders began raising his voice and interrupting Vought as he tried to answer questions.
Sanders: I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America, I really don’t know, probably a couple million. Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?
Vought: Senator, I am a Christian—
Sanders: I understand that you are a Christian. But this country is made up of people who are not just—I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. 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?
Vought tried to clarify how he thinks people of other traditions should be treated, referring to a doctrine known as imago dei. “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,” Vought said. “I believe that as a Christian, that’s how I should treat all individuals—”