How an Article from an Obscure Theological Debate Resurfaced in Last Week’s Senate Hearings

Last week Sen. Bernie Sanders repeatedly questioned Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Budget and Management, about his evangelical religious beliefs. Even the Atlantic deemed Sanders’ line of questioning a “religious test for Christians in public office.” I’m not going to argue with that. Sanders did not make clear why his line of questioning was relevant to the duties Vought would be expected to perform.

There are certainly times when a nominee’s religious beliefs might be relevant. Consider, for example, a situation where a Jehovah’s Witness is nominated to the Department of Health and Human Services. This was not one of those times.

Why did Vought’s religious views come up at all? It had to do with an early 2016 conflict at Wheaton, Vought’s alma mater. Larycia Hawkins, a Wheaton professor, wore a hijab and stated in a Facebook post that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” Hawkins was quickly suspended, but quit before the school could complete procedures to fire her. The evangelical world ignited with controversy—did Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

The result was an onslaught of articles from layperson and religious leader alike, and the evangelical world spent several weeks in fervent debate. Vought publicly defended Wheaton, penning an article for a conservative website. Vought’s article should be understood as part of a conversation among evangelicals over an issue those outside of this tradition would likely consider an obscure theological point. Of his article, Sanders picked out only two sentences:

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.

What was the context of these sentences? I haven’t found a single article about Sanders’ line of questioning that asks this question, and I think it’s one worth asking.

In his article, Vought began by outlining Hawkins’ position as follows:

In her responsive letter to the school seeking clarification for her comments, [Hawkins] writes:

I understand that Islam (and Judaism) denies the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and leaves no room for the Cross and the Resurrection, but my statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety. When I say that “we worship the same God,” I am saying…that ‘when pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply God.

In other words, Dr. Hawkins is saying that she does not mean to comment on how an individual becomes saved by God, but rather the validity of their faith.

In this way Vought seeks to clarify Hawkins’ position before responding to it. Her argument, as Vought explains here, was that while Muslims are not saved—see Hawkins’ comment about “the Cross and the Resurrection” and her reference to soteriology—they nonetheless address the same God as Christians when they pray. Note that even Hawkins states that Muslims do not have access to salvation, because they do not accept the divinity (or message) of Jesus Christ.

Vought next quotes from Dr. John Stackhouse’ defense of Hawkins’ position:

If we insist, as many are insisting in this furore, that God must be understood in terms of the Trinity, with a focus especially on Jesus, or else one really doesn’t know God, I respectfully want to ask such Bible believers what they make of Abraham (who is held up as a paradigm of faith in the New Testament) and the list of Old Testament saints (who are held up as paradigms of faith to Christians in Hebrews 11), precisely none of whom can be seriously understood as holding trinitarian views and some proleptic vision of the identity and career of Jesus Christ.

Must one understand the Trinity in order to know God? That was the question the debate over Hawkins’ comments kept coming back to. We often speak of three “Abrahamic” religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all trace their origins back to the same figure, and, arguably, worship the “same” God. The sticking point is that evangelicals believe in the Trinity while Muslims and Jews do not. Christians believe that God is three parts in one, and that Jesus is divine. Both Jews and Muslims object to that. So—do they pray to the same God as Christians? Can they, when they disagree fundamentally about the form of God?

Like Hawkins, Stackhouse argued Muslims could and did pray to the same God as Christians—despite not believing in the Trinity. Stackhouse cited Abraham and others whose faith was praised in the New Testament, even though they were not trinitarians. But Vought disagreed, stating that “such a distinction leads to serious theological confusion because of what it means to be in relationship with or know the one, true God.” He went on as follows:

Stackhouse implies that someone could really “know God” without a focus on Jesus. He explains, “Having a deficient (e.g., nontrinitarian) theology of God … does not mean you are not in actual prayerful and faithful relationship with God. (Having wrong ideas about a person … doesn’t mean that you do not have a relationship with that person.)” This is the fundamental problem. 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 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.”

Vought argued, in other words, that Muslims could not “know” God not because they did not believe in the Trinity, as some were arguing, but rather because they had rejected Jesus, separating themselves from God. This is a theological point. Vought quotes verses from the New Testament that he believes backs up his point that one cannot know or pray to the Christian God if one does not believe in or know Jesus.

But something strange happened early last year, as this debate raged within the evangelical community: Non-evangelicals took what was in many ways an esoteric doctrinal dispute and turned it into straightforward evidence of Islamophobia. The conversation that took place within evangelicalism in the wake of Hawkins’ comments never included an allowance that Muslims might be saved rather than headed for eternal damnation like all other non-evangelicals. That wasn’t what it was about.

Now on many levels, it is understandable that many saw the dispute as one of simple Islamophobia. After all, Hawkins made what she likely thought was a straightforward defense of Muslims’ common humanity, and was suspended for it. But while some evangelicals may have reacted primarily to her donning of the hijab, for most the question was more specific—did Muslims pray to the same God as Christians? Most evangelicals would answer no. But Hawkins said they did, and Hawkins was a professor at Wheaton, and that meant the theologians had to weigh in (and weigh in they did).

This, in the end, was the central argument of Vought’s article:

Why downplay the primacy of Jesus Christ in having a relationship with God? Does Dr. Hawkins really want to send a confusing (albeit highly nuanced) message to the world (and many of her own Christian students) in which the quick takeaway for many people will be that they do not need to know this Jesus Christ who claims to be their God and King? How does that lead to more brothers and sisters in Christ? It doesn’t.

Vought was concerned that any admission that Muslims pray to the same God as Christians might suggest that Muslims have their own way of knowing God, and that they do not need to know Jesus to know God. Central to evangelicalism is the idea that salvation comes through Christ alone, and that all humanity is doomed to eternity in hell without it. Muslims don’t simply worship differently, they do not understand the gospel or the salvation message (i.e. that salvation comes from admitting that you are an unworthy sinner and putting your trust Christ’s sacrifice on the cross alone).

During last week’s hearings, Sanders repeatedly asked Vought whether he believed that Muslims stood condemned. “In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are gonna be condemned?” Sanders asked. Sanders’ questions were not really about Vought’s article or the controversy over Hawkins’ comments at all, except that—presumably—someone on his staff had connected that brouhaha to Islamophobia. Sanders’ questions were instead about a central tenet of evangelicalism—that all humans are sinners destined for hell, and that salvation is attainable through Christ alone.

I do not think it is going too far to call Sanders’ line of questioning a religious test. Vought repeatedly stated that he believes that “all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs,” or, in other words, that his religious beliefs will not interfere with his ability to do his job. But this wasn’t enough for Sanders, who ended his questions by pledging to vote “no” because “this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” That statement is pretty clear.

I’ll be honest—I didn’t expect last year’s inter-evangelical debate over Hawkins’ comments to come back in quite this way.

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