Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Did Bernie Sanders really flunk the religious test for office?

Sen. Bernie Sanders asks questions during a confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Over the past couple of weeks Bernie Sanders has caught unshirted hell from left, right, and center for criticizing a statement of religious belief by Russell Vought at a Senate Budget Committees hearing on Vought’s nomination to be Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In so doing, Sanders had, it was asserted, violated or all but violated the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for office. Really?

Let’s review the bidding.

In January 2016, Vought, vice president of Heritage Action, wrote a blog post for Erick Erickson’s new right-wing website The Resurgent in which he defended the effort of Wheaton College (his alma mater) to terminate tenured political science professor Larycia Hawkins for saying that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”

“Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology,” Vought wrote. “They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

Fast forward to June 7, when the ACLU issued a press release from its legislative and advocacy counsel quoting the two sentences and suggesting that they raise concern whether Vought can “serve our entire nation in good faith.” At Vought’s hearing the following day, Sanders also quoted the sentences and asked, “Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?”

There followed an interchange in which Vought said he was simply a Christian speaking “in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College,” and Sanders responded: “I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?”

Sanders proceeded to ask whether Vought thought that saying that non-believers in Jesus Christ stand condemned is “respectful of other religions,” whereupon the following exchange concluded the colloquy.

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 in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

So did Sanders violate the injunction of Article Six, Section 3  that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”?

Nope. The clause refers to formal religious requirements for government service, such as the English Test Acts of the 17th and 18 centuries, which were contrived to bar Catholics from serving in Parliament.

Nothing in the Constitution forbids citizens from voting for or against a candidate, or a senator from voting for or against a presidential nominee, on religious grounds. The most that can be said is that Sanders’ line of questioning violated the spirit of Article Six, Section 3.

But let’s consider Sanders’ concern about Islamophobia. Does Vought’s blog post justify it?

I’d say yes, based on Silk’s First Rule of Anti-Muslim Prejudice (FRAMP): “If a conservative Christian condemns Muslims for not acknowledging Jesus Christ but avoids condemning Jews for the same reason, you can be pretty sure it’s Islamophobia.”

In his blog post, Vought quotes from Hawkins’ defense of her position as follows: “I understand that Islam (and Judaism) denies the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and leaves no room for the Cross and the Resurrection, but my statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety.”

At the hearing, Sanders asks whether Jews stand condemned too.

In both cases, Vought fails to answer the Jewish question. Ergo, FRAMP can be invoked.

If you think that the Larycia Hawkins affair was just a Christian school’s theological dispute regarding the “centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation,” I’ve got a piece of the true cross to sell you. If you think Vought wasn’t really avoiding mention of Judaism, just imagine a public figure writing on a leading political website: “Jews do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

For some decades now, social conservatives have insisted that religious belief cannot be separated from religious behavior. If that’s so, it’s fair game to ask a nominee with exclusivist beliefs whether he will be respectful of those of other faiths.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • I’m not quite sure what “unshirted hell” means, but good ole Senator Bernie definitely earned his share of it recently.

    Quite honestly, he got what he deserved, from all sides of the fence. Maybe Bernie will now think twice before “violating the spirit of” Article 6 Section 3.

    And if he doesn’t take the hint, there’s always the ADX Federal Supermax Prison, yes? A few years’ vacation in there will settle ALL of his anti-Christian hash!!

  • The problem with FRAMP would seem to be that condemning non-believers and Jews, such as our Lord for instance, is a bit short-sighted. Judge not, lest you be judged, comes to mind.

  • The problem is Sanders is a moron and cannot even ask questions properly. He expects Vought to answer his very poorly worded if not loaded questions with definitive answers, but Sanders can dance around what he is looking to get at. Namely, will this person be able to treat all religions with the same respect. Sanders sole purpose here was to see to it that Vought was labeled Islamophobic and proposed his questions accordingly.

    Then of course do not get me started about whether Sanders would do the same to an Islamic candidate, because……you guessed it, it would be Islamophobic to ask it. Bernie is showing his utter idiocy for not only the questions, but his attitude as well. He most certainly needs to be taken to task over this, and is another CLEAR indication that the left, alt-left, cannot see through their own hyperventilating agenda.

    Yes Sanders blew it big time, and I would hope that this is another wake up call to those who feel Christians are the cause of all the world’s woes. People can persecute us, but we do not care as we have been taught how to deal with it from all directions. Sanders is proof positive that the rabid left will continue and (yawn) it’s so typical and redundantly boring.

  • People are judged by actions not by their religious theological beliefs by our society and in our system of justice. This is the way it ought to be and really must be. People in their individual way, private to them and according to their own reason and intellect filtered through their conscience translate their religious beliefs into action. This an individual and complicated process. In most cases it is wrong for one man to say to another: “you believe such and such therefore we know you will act in a certain way”. This denies the individual their own use of their mental processes and their freedom of self determination. It is also a non sequitur or a fallacious logic. Sanders conclusion is not proven by his argument but he assumes it is true. People have reason, intellect and free will and they have a conscience. They all work together to interpret their beliefs into action the final outcome of this process is behavior and behavior is the best way by which one person may judge another.

    Senator Sanders took a statement of a single theological or religious belief based on an interpretation of a sacred text from a letter from Vought to Vought’s faith community about a particular point of theology that was being debated within that community. The Senator applied his own interpretation and reasoning to that belief. (Racists,bigoted) The Senator then attributed his thoughts and interpretation to Vought. He then used that reasoning (Bernie’s not Vought’s) and predicted how Vought would behave as a result of that belief. Bernie took over Vought’s right to filter his beliefs through his own intellect and conscience and denied Vought the exercise of his free will to determine his own behavior. Sanders read his mind and then predicted of Vought negative future actions based upon the reading.This is why I believe what Bernie did or attempted to do is misguided. All this was done using only one belief about judgment in the afterlife and with out any evidence that Vought had ever behaved in the manner Sanders accused him of. In fact all the evidence is to the contrary. A person’s religious theological beliefs can not normally be used by others to predict their future actions with any accuracy.This is why, as I stated before, we judge people by their behavior and not by their religious theological believes. It is also why we have freedom of religion which I believe includes freedom of thought and freedom of conscience.

  • A belief can not be Islamiphobic. People are islamiphobic or bigoted or racist.A belief is a thought. A belief can not necessitate you behave in a specific way. A belief can not dictate your future behavior.
    What Senator Sanders did was mean spirited, uncalled for, misguided and an illogical attack on a Christian belief of Vought’s for the purpose of discrediting him, discriminating against him and denying Vought a position.

  • Okay I’m sold on FRAMP, but I’m still not sure if we witnessed a BURP, Bernie’s unbiased religious perspective or a BELCH, Bernie’s ethical legal Christian hiccup.
    From what I can see, Bernie in a nut shell just asked Vought, ‘did you say these things’. Vought in a nut shell said “yes here is why”. Bernie then in a nutshell said, I don’t like it, or you.”
    It took me like 2 minutes to google some information on the incident at Wheaton and I found where Stan Jones a Wheaton provost found professor Hawkins statement “innocuous”. I found where faculty supported her, and where students and alumni supported her. I found a quote from Gary Burge a New Testament professor. “I have seen no theological argument from the college that would deem her comments unacceptable”.

    The way Bernie handled this I can not seperate myself, students and alumni, provost, or New Testament professors from Bernie’s view of Vought. Vought probably has a Fundamentally Angry Religious Theology, butt compared to who. Come on Bernie, is it just Vought or is it all of us who would identify as Christian. Take the time to explain yourself if don’t mean all of “us”. We don’t bite…very hard.

  • There are plenty of Christians seeking offices who don’t succumb to the temptation to condemn others’ faith.

  • The firing of Hawkins was an attack on academic freedom and as such its defenders deserve scrutiny and are not therefore appropriate candidates. If course, many are going to get through, since this administration is beholden to religious right figures whose ignoring Trump’s personal life gave them the spoils system they wanted.

  • the fellow’s free to practice his religion, just not on the public payroll while he does,

  • Hey, now the Trump administration controls the FEMA camps and can just send us there. Supermax is reserved for celeb baddies like those best buds Terry Nichols (timothy McVeigh’s accomplice), the Unabomber, and the first World Trade Center bomber. The rest of the prisoners there feel honored when those three invite the rest to watch TV with them.

  • I don’t get the uproar. Vought was simply saying that Muslims and Jews will “feel the Bern”.

  • I agree with you. From what I read I don’t see where Bernie made that distinction. It would have helped if Bernie would have asked Vought about some very qualified competing views within Wheaton. If I didn’t know better I would think that Vought represented every faculty member, student, and alumni from Wheaton. In any case I wish Bernie Sanders would have made the same statement you made.

  • “God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”

    F. Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist convention, circa 1976

  • I wonder which of us is objective enough to set the standards of “respect,” in a way that all can embrace it.

  • I think it would have been better if Vought explained his theology. My understanding of the Wheaton brouhaha was that many within the college were fine with Hawkins’s statement, but a vocal group of donors, I mean alumni, complained.

  • My sentiment exactly. The problem as I see it though is, Vaught did explain his theology, he was never pressed to explain the difference between his and those within who opposed. The way Sen. Sanders let his explanation sit there without challenge made himself look bad. It made him look like an old liberal white guy who doesn’t like anybody who disagrees with what he believes. I say that as a old white guy who has to be careful how I express an opinion lest I come across as an old conservative white guy stereotype.
    I have no problem with how Bernie feels, unless, Bernie feels that way without distinction. I don’t know if he does though, he didn’t let us know.

  • Of the OT people, after Joseph was sold by his brothers Judah went off from them to marry Shuah (wealth), a Canaanite (world) woman while Joseph (Jesus) saved the world and married an Egyptian (the gentile church). Yet among the twelve brothers, two were deemed by their father obnoxious and mean spirit to slaughter the hamlet of Sychar. There was Levi (religious) and Simeon (mom named him unloved by father). They did not receive the blessing of inheritance in lands. They live off their brothers’ hand (land). So it is in religions, you have the secular branch seem to making off with the blessing while the religious branch living poorly with hair locks and funeral dress. So it is ordained the religious and self righteous would have torment and torture for themselves and others since they do not really trust their savior as they think their salvation is in their own hands, they do not even believe their Savior of miracles and healing.

  • Sanders is a NWO socialist jew, and feels it is right to question anyone not holding his beliefs, whatever his beliefs are. No separation of church and state for him.

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