Senator Bernie Sanders’ shameful attack on religious liberty

For 90 minutes this afternoon, I was glued to my computer
screen, watching video of testimony before the Senate and dismayed at the
assault on our freedoms. No, I’m not talking about the public hearings with top
intelligence community officials, discussing Russian interference in November’s
election. I’m talking about the afternoon confirmation hearing of Mr. Russell
Vought, President Trump’s nominee to Deputy Director of the Office of
Management and Budget
, at which Senator Bernie Sanders did his best to confirm that, as Michael Wear puts it, the Democratic Party has a religion problem.

A confirmation hearing for the OMB Deputy Director is easy
to overlook. Don’t get me wrong, the OMB performs a critical function for our government,
assisting the President in the preparation of a budget, overseeing the budget
administration, and evaluating the efficiency of government regulations, and the
Deputy Director plays an important role in its operations. So it’s not that the
OMB isn’t important. It is important. It’s just not sexy. OMB is the definition
of pedestrian. Anyone hoping to enhance their civic literacy by watching a
Senate hearing might have watched something decidedly more dramatic earlier in
the day. Or they might have waited for James Comey’s testimony tomorrow, but
they would have missed Senator Sanders’ affront to religious liberty.

While I do support watching such hearings as an exercise in
civic literacy (and I also recommend reading court judgments and opinions in their entirety for
the same reason), I watched the session because I know the nominee. I should
clarify that I don’t know Vought well, but we lived on the same floor for a
year as undergraduate students at Wheaton College (where I now work), and he is
a friend of a friend. I kept up just a tiny bit with his career, but at a distance,
after I heard of his work at the Heritage Foundation. I haven’t looked into all
of the details of that work, but I was able to see rather easily that Vought and I disagree on
very basic questions about the proper role and size of government, and about
spending – the kinds of things that should come up in a confirmation hearing
for the Deputy Director of OMB.

Indeed, those things did come up. Vought, who has been part
of the Trump administration’s “beachhead” team at OMB and was among the authors
of the president’s recently proposed budget, faced questions about federal
support for rural airports and offered thoughtful answers about reforms that
might diminish the annual political brinksmanship around budget time. For their
part, many of the Senators asked important questions, such as whether or not
Vought would eliminate a tax break for the wealthy if it would reduce the
deficit (he wouldn’t), whether he would comply with congressional oversight
requests (he would, sort of), and whether a government shutdown could ever be good (he
waffled).

Some of the questions were less prosaic, delving into
political philosophy and public posture. Acquitting himself well even where I
disagree with him, Vought answered questions about his safety-net-shredding skinny
budget by emphasizing that, in his opinion, even the most vulnerable treasure
the American ideals of achievement and upward mobility more than they want the government
to meet their basic needs. Senator Christopher Van Hollen challenged Vought’s alleged
description of federal infrastructure spending as “communist,” which would be a
genuinely unhelpful exaggeration, at the very least. And, in a portion of the
hearing that bears rewatching, Senator Tim Kaine engaged Vought in an extended
and respectful dialogue about the role of government.

While few Committee members indicated how they would vote on
Vought, Senator Sanders vowed to vote “No.” Was it a conflict over how best to support
the working class? A difference of opinion on funding for the Low Income Home Energy
Assistance Program? An argument about dramatic cuts to entitlement programs?
No, no, and no. Senator Sanders vows to vote “No” because of Vought’s article, “Wheaton
College and the Preservation of Theological Clarity,”
published by The Resurgent in January 2016, at the
height of the highly publicized dispute between Wheaton College and Dr. Larycia
Hawkins. (For many reasons, I won’t rehash the college’s 2015-2016 controversy,
but I will say that I disagreed sharply with Vought’s perspective. In my opinion,
he simply missed the point. This is not surprising, as almost every outside
observer, regardless of their position, proved so woefully uninformed about key aspects of
the crisis that their commentary was either unhelpful or counterproductive.)

What was so offensive to Senator Sanders’ sensibilities?
Vought’s religious exclusivism, his insistence that the only way to be right
with God, the only way to be saved from sin and to inherit eternal life is to
know, accept, and trust Jesus Christ. Muslims, Vought wrote, “do not know God
because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” After
repeatedly cutting off admirably composed responses from Vought, Sanders
described the statement as “Islamophobic” and concluded his rant with “I would
simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what
this country is supposed to be about. I will vote no.“ It was shameful. (It should be said that Senator Van Hollen joined Senator Sanders in this error, but briefly, less coherently, and to less effect.)

Substantively, Vought’s exclusivist statement is consistent
with the position of most, even if not all, Christians past and present:
Deliverance from the bondage to and consequences of sin depends entirely on
knowing and trusting the person and work of Jesus Christ. Formally, Vought’s
exclusivist statement is the sort of statement that many non-Christian
religious adherents would make. Adherents of many religious traditions believe
those who stand outside of their traditions cannot be delivered, either from
the terrors of the world or from the errors of their ways. I’m quite sure some
of my Muslim friends believe my lack of submission to Allah will make me unfit for
paradise; I don’t think that belief makes them unfit for public service.

By making Vought’s article the centerpiece of his opening
statement, the driving concern of his mid-hearing questions, and the occasion of his
final huffy insistence that he would vote “no” on Vought’s nomination, Senator
Sanders showed astonishing contempt for freedom of religion. That a highly respected, thoughtful, accomplished, and experienced senator – one that
was nearly the Democratic Party’s nominee to the presidency – thinks it’s
appropriate to use a religious litmus test to discern the fitness of public
servants is deeply troubling. That Senator Sanders believes religious
exclusivists are “really not [people] this country is supposed to be about,” should
be a wake-up call to people of many religions, including both Christianity and Islam.

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