If your political sun has been rising and setting on the cage match between Donald Trump and James Comey, there’s an ominous little story that you might have missed. In an otherwise-uneventful Senate hearing for Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Bernie Sanders launched a direct and aggressive attack on Vought’s religious beliefs.
I won’t transcribe the entire exchange (you can read it in my Corner post on the matter), but Sanders aggressively took issue with a piece Vought authored at The Resurgent, which defended Wheaton College’s decision to terminate a professor who declared that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.” The post is well-written, and it expresses orthodox Protestant Christian theology. It also contains a passage that apparently infuriated Sanders: “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 the Senate hearing, Sanders called this statement “Islamophobic,” and, with his voice rising, challenged Vought’s fitness for office. Eventually, he all-but-declared Vought un-American. He concluded his remarks by declaring that, “This nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”
Sanders’s tirade was certainly outrageous: Article VI of the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, and he blatantly violated the language and spirit of that prohibition in Skewering Vought. But it was also instructive: This is what happens when our national polarization breeds both ignorance and intolerance, and when intolerance trumps even the rule of law.
First, let’s deal with the ignorance. It’s plain from the tone and content of his questioning that Sanders has no idea of the basic beliefs of orthodox Protestant Christianity. It’s also plain that he has no idea of the basic beliefs of the Islamic faith that he’s defending. This was the interrogation of a man confident that he’s dealing with an extremist, a religious nut job who needs to be exposed. Sanders obviously has no idea that even millions of Democratic voters would nod along with Vought’s analysis, seeing it as self-evident. (After all, Christ himself declared, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”) He also seems to be oblivious to the fact that the Islamic faith that he defends offers its own, competing, exclusivity. (One wonders: Would he grill an Islamic nominee in a similar fashion?)
Sanders isn’t just ignorant of the orthodoxy of Vought’s argument, though. He’s also ignorant of its religious, cultural, and political implications. He sees a statement that any person “stands condemned” perhaps as license to discriminate against or oppress unbelievers. But properly understood Evangelical Christian belief dictates that a person should love, respect, and, if necessary, even die for the lost, as Christ Himself did.
Sanders’s ignorance then leads directly to intolerance. He personifies the arrogant contempt for Evangelicals that so often marks the secular American elite. They don’t understand Protestant Christian theology. They read the worst stories of Christian behavior and presume that those stories fairly represent Evangelical beliefs. So they try to drive Evangelicals from the public square, and in so doing they become the intolerant scolds they imagine their foes to be. They hate Christianity, and use political power to try to suppress its influence. They presume that their Christian opponents would do the same. Thus, they spark the exact kind of religious conflict that the founders sought to avoid.
On this point, Article VI could not be more clear:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
Actions matter. Each public servant, including Vought, is required to support the Constitution regardless of his faith. If he were to violate the constitutional rights of any citizen he could and should be held to account — even if he believed his action to be religiously justified or compelled. But no senator can simply presume that Vought won’t comply with the Constitution because he believes only followers of Jesus Christ will receive salvation.
One final note: Sanders’s actions also show the fragility of one of our core constitutional protections. There is no right or ability to sue Sanders into compliance. He can vote however he chooses, and there is no cause of action to compel him to cleanse his mind of unconstitutional motivations when he casts those ballots. Thus, one of our nation’s most important traditions depends on Senators’ simply doing the right thing. But when our politics gets this polarized, it’s easy to justify ignoring the Constitution or rationalizing away its requirements for the sake of an alleged greater good. That’s what Sanders did here, and given the ignorance and intolerance that dominates our national debate, we can expect him — or others who think like him — to do it again.