Updated on June 8 at 11:40 a.m.
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders flirted with the boundaries of this rule during a confirmation hearing for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Sanders took issue with a piece Vought wrote in January 2016 about a fight at the nominee’s alma mater, Wheaton College. The Christian school had fired a political-science professor, Larycia Hawkins, for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Vought disagreed with Hawkins’s post and defended the school in an article for the conservative website The Resurgent. During the hearing, Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage that he found particularly objectionable:
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.
“In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders told the committee during his introductory remarks. “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms … we must not go backwards.”
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—”
Sanders interrupted again. “And do you think your statement that you put in that publication, ‘They do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ the son, and they stand condemned,’ do you think that’s respectful of other religions?” Vought replied that he wrote the post as a Christian alumnus of Wheaton, which “has a statement of faith that speaks clearly with regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.”
After a long exchange on tax cuts for the wealthy and other issues directly relevant to Vought’s proposed role in government, this issue—Vought’s beliefs about the exclusivity of his religion—seemed to be the reason why Sanders saw him as an unacceptable candidate for office. “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders said. “I will vote no.”
The next two senators who spoke also stepped into the fight. Cory Gardner, the Republican senator from Colorado, chastised Sanders: “I hope that we are not questioning the faith of others, and how they interpret their faith to themselves,” he said. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland defended his colleague: “I don’t think anybody was questioning anybody’s faith here,” he said. Van Hollen said it’s “irrefutable” that comments like Vought’s suggest to many that he’s condemning all people who aren’t Christians. And he asserted that Vought’s view of his faith is wrong: “I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian, in my view, is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God,” Van Hollen said. “No one is questioning your faith ... It’s your comments that suggest a violation of the public trust in what will be a very important position.”
It was a remarkable moment: a Democratic senator lecturing a nominee for public office on the correct interpretation of Christianity in a confirmation hearing putatively about the Office of Management and Budget. Sanders and Van Hollen seemed to be reacting to something bigger than a year-old blog post about a controversy at a Christian college. Trump “is trying to divide this country up,” Sanders said. From their perspective, this is what the exchange was really about: the sense that bigotry and discrimination have become nastier and more commonplace in recent months, which poses a direct threat to the democratic institutions they’re tasked with defending.
In a statement on Thursday, a spokesman for Sanders said, “In a democratic society, founded on the principle of religious freedom, we can all disagree over issues, but racism and bigotry—condemning an entire group of people because of their faith—cannot be part of any public policy.” The nomination of a candidate like Vought, “who has expressed such strong Islamaphobic language," the statement said, “is simply unacceptable.” A spokeswoman for Van Hollen later added that “Senator Van Hollen’s testimony is crystal clear—he wasn’t questioning anyone’s faith. He asked Mr. Vought to be fair to all Americans and uphold the Constitution—something he asks of all nominees and expects of every public official.”
It’s one thing to take issue with bigotry. It’s another to try to exclude people from office based on their theological convictions. Sanders used the term “Islamophobia” to suggest that Vought fears Muslims for who they are. But in his writing, Vought was contesting something different: He disagrees with what Muslims believe, and does not think their faith is satisfactory for salvation. Right or wrong, this is a conviction held by millions of Americans—and many Muslims might say the same thing about Christianity.
This is the danger of relying on religion as a threshold test for public service, the kind of test America’s founders were guarding against when they drafted Article VI. But that danger did not stop Sanders or Van Hollen from focusing on Vought’s religious beliefs during his confirmation hearing. It did not stop groups including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Muslim Advocates from sending out press releases condemning Vought’s comments. The American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in, saying that it was Vought’s views which threatened the principle of religious freedom.
As the demands for tolerance in America become greater, the bounds of acceptance can also become tighter. Ironically, that pits acceptance of religious diversity against the freedom of individual conscience.