Except perhaps for his faith in the power of the human will to overcome economic reality, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is an unreligious man. An article in Religion News Service last year called him “perhaps the least religious person in the 2016 race” — a presidential contest that, recall, included Donald J. Trump.
So, the Democratic senator’s recent religious zealotry comes as a surprise. Two weeks ago, Sanders thought it pertinent to grill Russell Vought, Donald Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, on his theology at a meeting of the Senate Budget Committee. In January 2016, Vought published a blog post at The Resurgent in which he stated that Muslims “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” This, Sanders declared at the nominee’s confirmation hearing, was “indefensible,” “hateful,” and “Islamophobic.” “This nominee,” Sanders harrumphed, “is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”
During an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union this weekend, Sanders defended the line of questioning. Vought “and any other American has the right to hold any point of view they want,” said Sanders, but it is “unacceptable” “to have a high-ranking member of the United States government essentially say Islam is a second-class religion.”
That is, of course, not what Vought said in his post or in his testimony, and there is no evidence that his views ever encumbered anyone else’s ability to participate fully in American political life — the only circumstance in which any of this could be remotely relevant to Vought’s nomination. But Sanders conveniently ignored the crucial distinction between Vought’s conscience and his conduct.
It is interesting that Sanders’s assault on religious freedom comes as, across the Atlantic, Tim Farron is drummed out of politics in the United Kingdom. Last week, Farron resigned as leader of the U.K.’s Liberal Democratic party following a poor showing in the recent parliamentary elections. But Farron’s choice to step aside had less to do with the Lib-Dems’ electoral performance — they had already been all but wiped out — than with the media’s almost prurient interest in Farron’s private Christian religious views. It was not enough that Farron supported a legal right to abortion and same-sex marriage; the fact that he privately believed them to be sinful acts was not allowed to pass unchallenged. He was routinely attacked in the media — again, not for anything he had done, but for views about matters theological that he held privately. Farron’s resignation speech was striking: “To be a political leader — especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 — and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”
Between Vought and Farron, one can get a sense of the bizarre position in which many orthodox religious believers find themselves today: that of having their views dictated to them by people who do not believe those things in the first place. The BBC demands that Tim Farron not think abortion is a sin — even though virtually no one among Britain’s political and media elite believes in the idea of “sin.” Bernie Sanders demands that Russell Vought affirm that everyone is going to Heaven — even though there is no evidence that Sanders believes in any Heaven. A person of faith might justifiably ask: Why does Bernie Sanders get to decide the appropriate theology of salvation? Why do Sky News anchors get to decide what is and isn’t a sin?
There is a long and stupid tradition of believing that the American Right threatens to impose an Evangelical Christian theocracy on the United States — that every Republican lawmaker is looking to erect an official church and make women cover their ankles. In reality, it is the proudly irreligious Left that has smuggled religious debates back into our politics. It is the unabashedly secular Left that has knocked down the “wall of separation” and made the afterlife an immanent political issue.
These were precisely the sorts of issues that the Founders, recalling the conflagrations of recent centuries in Europe, sought to cabin off from political pressures. It’s not the place of earthly governments to render eternal judgments. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” someone advised. Whether abortion should be legal is a thing for Caesar; whether it is sinful is not.
Our new theocrats think differently, though, and no surprise: The dirty little secret of secular liberalism is not that its practitioners don’t believe in God; it’s that they believe they are God.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.