In early 2016, Wheaton College (an evangelical school in Illinois) was in the midst of a national controversy. One of their professors, Larycia Hawkins, had worn a hijab in solidarity with oppressed Muslim women and noted in a Facebook post that Christians and Muslims worshipped “the same God,” even if you had to accept the divinity of Christ to be saved.
It’s that “same God” phrase that offended Wheaton administrators (and, more importantly, donors) so much that the school suspended Hawkins and began the process to fire her. Hawkins left the school before that process was completed.
Writing at the time for conservative publication The Resurgent, Russ Vought defended Wheaton, his alma mater, for their “theological clarity.” He blasted Hawkins for creating “confusion” over “what it means to be in relationship with or know the one, true God.” He added:
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.
The wording is awkward, but this is a core part of evangelical beliefs. They believe they and they alone have access to the only path to God and everyone else is doomed to an eternity in Hell. All those other heathens — Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, etc. — must be “saved” so they don’t suffer that fate.
It was such a regurgitation of Christian beliefs that I doubt many people paid attention to Vought’s article… until now.
That’s because Vought is now Donald Trump‘s nominee to become Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Yesterday afternoon, at his hearing in front of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took Vought to task for those writings… for reasons that really make no sense at all. And I feel dirty saying that because it puts me on the same side as many conservatives, but Sanders asked all the wrong questions.
SANDERS: … Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?
VOUGHT: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. As I’ve stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith, that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation…
SANDERS: Again, I apologize. Forgive me. We just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe that people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?
VOUGHT: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian and I wrote that piece…
SANDERS: — What does that say? —
VOUGHT: … statement of faith of Wheaton College…
SANDERS: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. I really don’t know. Probably a couple million. Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?
VOUGHT: Senator, I’m a Christian…
SANDERS: I understand you are a Christian. But this country is made up of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are gonna be condemned?
VOUGHT: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that, as a Christian, that’s how I should treat all individuals…
SANDERS: And do you think your statement that you put into that publication, “They do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, the Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you think that’s respectful of other religions?
VOUGHT: Senator. I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly with regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.
SANDERS: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to me about. I will vote no.
Sanders’ heart is in the right place. His argument, however, is completely wrong.
Let me say what Vought refused to admit: Of course he thinks everyone who doesn’t share his views are going to Hell. Of course Muslims are condemned. So are all other non-Christians. That’s what his article was saying and that’s what he still believes.
You know who else believes that? More than a hundred million Americans. Damn nearly every Christian in Congress. And Donald Trump (or so we’re told).
Sanders wrongly interpreted that to mean Vought didn’t feel Muslims were deserving of equal rights.
The question Sanders should’ve asked is whether Vought’s beliefs about non-Christian people would ever influence his treatment of them under the law. Would he treat Muslims (or LGBT people, for that matter) the same way he treats Christians?
(Why any of this is relevant, since Vought would work in the Office of Management and Budget, is another matter.)
Sanders said he would vote no to Vought because he’s a Bible-believing Christian, not because he said he would put the Bible over the Constitution while on the clock. That’s religious discrimination. That’s a violation of Article 6 of the Constitution (the part that says there should be no religious test for public office).
It’s the very thing church/state separation advocates ought to condemn.
This is why conservatives are having a field day with this story — and they’re not wrong to be upset.
Laurie Higgins, an anti-LGBT activist, asked the right question at the end of a long rant:
This country was founded to protect the free exercise of religion. This country has no religious test for office. And yet the feckless curmudgeon Sanders has in effect said no theologically orthodox Christians are fit for office.
Islam is not merely a deficient theology. It is a false religion. It is not “Islamophobia” — of which Sanders accused Vought — or hatred that leads me to say this. It is God’s Word. Those who know what Scripture teaches and care about their friends and/or family who are Muslim should share this truth with them.
I wonder, will Sanders be asking Muslims who are nominated or running for office if they believe Jews go to Heaven?
While that would be a fascinating question to hear a senator ask, it would also be pointless unless there was reason to believe someone’s theology was going to get in the way of their job.
Emma Green of The Atlantic notes that some senators called out Sanders for his questioning:
The next two senators who spoke also stepped into the fight. Cory Gardner, the Republican senator from Colorado, chastised Sanders: “I hope that we are not questioning the faith of others, and how they interpret their faith to themselves,” he said. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland defended his Democratic colleague: “I don’t think anybody was questioning anybody’s faith here,” he said. Van Hollen said it’s “irrefutable” that comments like Vought’s suggest to many that he’s condemning all people who aren’t Christians. And he asserted that Vought’s view of his faith is wrong: “I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian, in my view, is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God,” Van Hollen said. “No one is questioning your faith … It’s your comments that suggest a violation of the public trust in what will be a very important position.”
Van Hollen was wrong to say “no one is questioning your faith.” That’s exactly what Sanders was doing. There’s a legitimate question about public trust, but those of us who aren’t in the Christian majority have those concerns about a lot of politicians who thump their Bibles in the halls of Congress. Vought isn’t an anomaly. But from the line of questioning alone, there’s no reason to believe he would discriminate against non-Christians if confirmed in the position.
Vought may be another Christian bigot in the government. But how would that manifest itself in the OMB? We never got an answer to that. And Sanders pulled the trigger before he had a good reason to denounce the nominee.