Bernie Sanders, Anti-Evangelical Bigot?

Senator Bernie Sanders opposed the nomination of Russell Vought as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget because of the way Vought supported his alma mater in its firing of Larycia Hawkins.

Vought wrote the following for The Resurgent:

Bernie_Sanders_in_Littleton,_NH,_on_August_24,_2015_(20897434781) (3)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 declared that Vought’s comments were Islamophobic and therefore made him “really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”

Quickly, prominent evangelicals such as Russell Moore accused Sanders of anti-evangelical bigotry. If Sanders would not confirm a nominee with an exclusivist doctrine of salvation, then he is imposing a religious test in violation of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. Even worse, as far as many evangelical and conservative pundits were concerned, at least one Democratic senator defended his Vermont colleague.

Islamophobia versus Evangelicalphobia? The rhetoric seems rather overheated given the stakes. I presume that regardless of how benighted, incorrect, or funky Vought’s theology might be, it would have rather little influence on how he pursued his duties at the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps he could switch us all to a flat 10% tax/tithe.

Most likely, one of Sanders’s staffers handed him this scandalous piece of information about Vought, and he used it uncritically. Non-Christians have every right to be offended by Christians who tell them that they are going to hell, and with all due respect to Article VI, certain religious beliefs might well disqualify individuals from public office. For instance, someone who advocates for the application of Mosaic law to certain sexual activities would face legitimate opposition. Most theological opinions are not disqualifying when it comes to one’s fitness for public office.

Furthermore, while I consider Sanders’s questions and conclusions out of line in this case, I’m inclined to give him a pass because he had the temerity and decency to visit Liberty University and engage in meaningful dialogue with its students during the 2016 primaries. Our politics need far more of that sort of engagement. In other words, Sanders has treated evangelicals with unusual respect at other points in his career.

Now, who stands condemned? Sanders? Vought? Hawkins?

In his Wheaton piece, Vought (in response to John Stackhouse) draws a distinction between the biblical patriarchs who lived in anticipation of a coming messiah and those who live after Jesus’s lifetime, the establishment of the church, and the collection of the New Testament:

Stackhouse argues that Abraham and the Old Testament saints had robust faiths and yet lacked a full understanding of the eventual Messiah and the Trinity. True. However, they did not reject what God had revealed to them up until that point.

Thus, Muslims are condemned because “they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son.” Vought’s words allude to those of Jesus in the Gospel of John, in which the savior says that “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. ”

Indeed, it is worth noting that the Qur’an contains many pointed and stinging denunciations of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the Christian assertion that Jesus is God’s divine son. An explicit rejection of the Trinity is a significant theme within the Qur’an. Muslims do not merely not believe in Jesus as God’s Son, but they declare the idea to be blasphemous.

Correspondingly, Christians living in the wake of the rapid spread of Islam denounced Islam as a heresy. John of Damascus, for example, denounced “the superstition of the Ishmaelites [Muslims]” as rooted in part in Muhammad’s alleged conversations with “an Arian monk”:

He says that there is one God, created of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten. He says that the Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, but a creature and a servant, and that He was begotten, without seed, of May the sister of Moses and Aaron.

Offensive as John of Damascus’s accusations are to Muslims, he provides a rather accurate summary of what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus.

At the heart of John’s complaint is that Muslims have rejected the clear teachings of the New Testament and the church about Jesus. In other words, they stand condemned because they have rejected inherited truths about Jesus Christ. For John of Damascus, Muslims were heretics. For Muslims, Christians had apostatized from the worship of the one true God.

Vought’s suggestion that Muslims “stand condemned” for having rejected Jesus Christ seems very wrong-headed to me. If one grows up as a Muslim, one embraces Jesus Christ as a prophet (a v.i.p., in fact) but not as the Son of God. One has not reflected upon and then rejected Christianity but has simply accepted the inherited teachings of one’s own tradition. Given Paul’s insistence that God shows no partiality, I cannot imagine that a merciful and loving God pronounces condemnation on all Muslims because they accept what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus Christ. Vought’s is a narrow understanding of God’s love and salvation.

In condemning Vought, however, Bernie Sanders expressed a rather narrow understanding of the acceptable theological boundaries for federal nominees. Vought may or may not be correct about the limits of God’s salvation or about the firing of Hawkins, but those views do not preclude him from becoming a deputy in the Office of Management and Budget.

 

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