Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Townhall on June 14, 2017.
It is the height of irony that Senator Bernie Sanders, in declaring Office of Management and Budget deputy director nominee Russell Vought’s beliefs as “bigotry” during his confirmation hearing (see 44:20) last week, expressed blatant bigotry toward Vought by refusing to vote for him for nothing but Vought’s religious views.
Sanders was apparently “bothered” by one religion-related blog post of Vought’s in which he stated: “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.” Sanders asked Vought whether he thought this statement was “Islamophobic” and whether he really believed that Muslims and Jews and “people who are not Christians are going to be condemned.” When Vought reiterated that he was declaring long-held Christian truths, Sanders interrupted and said his views weren’t very “respectful.” He finally declared Vought to be “not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” You really need to watch the exchange in the link above to believe it.
This would be comical if it weren’t so stark in its revelation of the state of our political discourse and public understanding of Christianity. Can we find a more blatant recent example of bigotry against Christian beliefs? What is it in this exchange which Sanders objects to aside from the nature and substance of Vought’s biblical beliefs?
A Sanders spokesperson subsequently responded to this exchange in the press by claiming: “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.”
Exactly what public policy was discussed in this exchange?
What’s particularly alarming about Sanders’ spokesperson’s statement is the inability to discern between private beliefs and public policy. At no point in this exchange above was anything raised to suggest Vought believes this biblical view should be enacted in public policy! In addition to engaging in an asinine, unconstitutional religious test for public office, this shows a dangerous inability to be precise in decision making and results in anyone even having such views (that the prevailing government at the time simply doesn’t like) being excluded from the public square. Alas, Sanders has fallen victim to this imprecise thinking.
What’s dangerous is that modern progressive liberals like Sanders see no problem with hauling religious views into the public limelight and judging someone based on them without any inkling they have impacted a person’s public policies. This is the result of modern progressive philosophy which says the (big government) State can be moral judge of private beliefs—as opposed to classical liberals who actually believe in pluralism and genuinely tolerated those who may have had different religious beliefs than them.
The alternative explanation of Sanders’ motivation is no more comforting. If Sanders actually believes Vought was saying he believes Muslims and others are condemned as a matter of civil law and society (as opposed to being spiritually “condemned”), then Sanders has displayed a near-abysmal understanding of the basic religious beliefs of millions of Americans he is supposed to be serving.
What’s worse is the exchange didn’t stop at the above. After Senator Cory Gardner followed Sanders by noting that no one should be discriminated against for their beliefs (including Vought), Senator Chris Van Hollen observed that Vought’s views were not very tolerant, and he (Van Hollen) as a Christian believes there are “lots of ways people can pursue their God.”
While Vought understandably may not do so, I’ll point out what needs pointing out: What Van Hollen is doing is dangerously in violation of the principles our Framers set forth in the Establishment Clause. They wanted to get away from the government being able to only espouse one specific theology, and if Van Hollen thinks his theology is permissible for a government official to hold, and Vought’s is not, he’s “establishing” a state religion and violating the purpose of that provision of the First Amendment.
Whatever else it shows, the above fracas reveals that the singling out of private religious beliefs has no business in America. Candidates for public service should be evaluated on the policies they prescribe and the likelihood they will serve the public good. Personal beliefs certainly inform those policies, but should never be at issue merely because someone possesses them. To hold otherwise is to engage in the type of bigotry which Sanders purports to condemn.