(RNS) Last week in Washington, a low-profile Senate committee hearing turned theological.
The bizarre incident aroused the usual suspects’ passions, but did little to inform or clarify how we should promote pluralism and tolerance in a religiously diverse society.
During a mundane confirmation hearing for a Trump administration appointee, Sen. Bernie Sanders used his few minutes to attack Russ Vought, a seasoned Republican policy hand nominated for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Sanders took Vought to task for a 2016 blog post in which he defended his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College, for firing a tenured professor who said Muslims and Christians pray to the same God.
To Democrats’ chagrin, Vought performed well and Sanders handled himself poorly.
Without explaining or defending his belief that Muslims “stand condemned,” Vought stated, “I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”
Sanders, angered and perplexed by the exchange, simply concluded, “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not something who this country is supposed to be about.”
It would make more sense for Sanders to suggest that Vought’s desire to kick millions of Americans off their insurance plans is not something this country should be about.
The Sanders-Vought episode illustrates several fundamental problems with how both sides in American politics approach religion.
Theological exclusivism — the belief that my religion guarantees salvation and yours leads to damnation — is widespread. Progressives who seem shocked by this idea need to get out more.
Sanders, who sees himself as an advocate for and exemplar of tolerance, actually looked quite intolerant in the exchange. While it’s true that senators have a constitutional duty to examine presidents’ nominees, the Constitution famously forbids religious tests for office.
Sanders also revealed an ugly side of secular progressives’ animus: They have a special disdain for conservative white Christians. Would Sanders have grilled a nominee who held the same beliefs as Vought if the nominee had been black? Or appointed by a Democratic president?
For his part, Vought actually elevated the stature of religious exclusivists. When pressed on whether his view was Islamophobic, Vought responded masterfully. He denied the false accusation, affirmed his basic Christian belief in the centrality of Jesus for salvation and demurred on the theological particulars.
Vought went on to affirm the inherent dignity of people who do not share his religious beliefs, implied a promise to treat them equally in the discharge of his duties and calmly asserted his faith as a private citizen.
So here we have an object lesson for people on both sides of the political (and theological) aisle.
Religious conservatives can be pushy, intolerant and uncompromising in the political arena. But if they uphold the values of pluralism, equity and democracy, their religious views can be as pushy, intolerant and uncompromising as they want.
Christian Republicans also tend to sacralize their beliefs about economics with the same kind of religious fervor that animates their belief that abortion should be criminalized and that marriage is by nature the union of a man and a woman.
The Sanders-Vought episode spawned many questions and conversations about who is saved and who is damned. But we do not need those questions in politics. We need to challenge Christians who use politics to make the rich richer.
I could not care less if Vought thinks God is going to condemn me to eternal torment in hell because I do not share his doctrinal beliefs. I care a great deal about how he squares his professed Christianity with his views on health-care policy — or with his ardent political support for a crude, race-baiting demagogue who boasts about sexual conquests and even assault.
Sanders unwittingly starred in a three-minute viral video exemplifying secular liberals’ cluelessness about religious faith.
If Sanders wanted to challenge an appointee’s theology in a committee hearing, Vought’s views are susceptible to criticism on many philosophical and theological fronts. Bernie Sanders knows not of what he speaks.
The Islamophobic charge is bogus. It is well-known that many evangelicals who believe that hell awaits Islam’s 1.8 billion adherents nevertheless support religious liberty for Muslims.
Sanders’ implication is that theological exclusivists are disqualified from government service because they would use their positions to privilege the saved and be indifferent or hostile toward the damned.
Of course we must guard against such abuses, but they are exceedingly rare.
We cannot banish half the population from the public square because they believe their religion is right and others’ are wrong.
If progressives want to score political points against religious conservatives, they should focus on policy, not theology.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)