In an unfortunate exchange during a confirmation hearing last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stepped on a land mine of religious liberty and Christian theology. He challenged a Budget Office nominee’s belief that “Muslims … stand condemned,” a statement taken from a blog post he had written about “the centrality of Christ” for a religious magazine during a controversy at his alma mater, Wheaton College. Nominee Russell Vought had been a professor at Wheaton, and he ventured into the question of Muslim vs. Christian theology when a conflict was sparked by a Christian female professor who decided to wear a hijab as an act of solidarity with Muslims under attack in the United States, a gesture many of us supported. After a lengthy and heated debate, the professor, Larycia Hawkins, left Wheaton.
But as Sanders’s exchange with Vought illustrates, we’re no closer to coming up with a way to speak compassionately about our differences and our deeply held beliefs in the same breath. It’s true that salvation through Christ alone — that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” as the Gospel says — is a tenet of faith that most Christians believe. And in announcing he would oppose Vought’s nomination in part because of these Christian beliefs, Sanders appeared to be virtually making a “religious test” for public office which is, indeed, unconstitutional and not consistent with democratic and religious freedom.
Different faiths have different theologies. Religions are not all the same. And unique theologies — even when they are different and, yes, mutually exclusive — are not a threat to religious liberty. Indeed, that’s what makes religious liberty so important. The theological distinctiveness of every faith tradition must be respected while, at the same time, we must strongly respect those differences among people of different faiths and no faith at all — that’s what religious liberty and pluralism mean and why it is so important. On the other hand, coming up with a language that allows us to express our distinct beliefs without denigrating others is also a crucial task for a democratic society. And we haven’t figured it out just yet.
Part of the problem is partisan: Democrats need to become more religiously literate and faith-friendly. We religious progressives often feel ignored and abandoned by a Democratic Party that seems indifferent to our religious traditions. As an evangelical advocate for social justice, I have fought right-wing religious fundamentalism my whole life. But the secular fundamentalism of the left is not much better — and it certainly does not help garner votes at election time.
It’s fair for a senator to ask a nominee how their faith or other beliefs would effect their stance on public policy — faith and public life questions are always relevant. In fact, Michael Wear, a member of the Obama faith-based office, also pointed out on Facebook that the theological debate in the Senate hearing room was wasted time that could have been better spent “questioning a Budget Office Nominee on one of the most draconian budgets that has been released in recent memory.” A little theological knowledge, in other words, could’ve gone a long way to producing a more focused discussion, and that’s something Democrats could stand to work on.
On the other hand, it is especially important at this moment of dangerous xenophobic sentiment against Muslims and increasing anti-Semitism against Jews to consider how we Christians talk about others and their faiths. Words like condemnation, which the nominee used in his blog post, are not helpful in our respectful dialogue, and one can see in our polarized climate how Sanders and others who, like him, are unfamiliar with the meaning of salvation for Christians might have misinterpreted that theology.
The need to treat people from all faiths as made in the image of God (as Vought said he believes is important to do, in response to Sanders’s inquiry) is absolutely vital. The utmost respect for “the other” is required now, especially with a strong commitment to defend each other’s faith and to protect others’ lives that are now under attack in the United States — partly inspired by the rhetoric of President Trump. Respecting and defending religious freedom in America is also essential as we seek to protect it in other countries where Christian minorities are under attack.
In response to dangerous anti-Muslim rallies over the weekend in several American cities, many Christians who adhere to an orthodox theology, like me, signed a letter that states, in part: “We stand united against anti-Muslim, xenophobic and racist policies, rhetoric, and behavior. Our religious principles teach us to love and respect one other. Our civic responsibility demands that we take a public stand against instances of bigotry, hatred, and persecution.”
Melissa Rogers, former director of the faith-based office in the Obama administration, tweeted it as well. “Senators should not oppose nominees because of nominees’ purely theological convictions/beliefs,” she said. Then she added, “Senators should ensure that nominees will protect equal rights for people of all faiths or none.” That is exactly the right balance.
Striking that balance between respect for religious differences and acceptance of religious beliefs is difficult. But it can be done. I will never forget the time Billy Graham spoke at the JFK Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I was blessed to be there and hear the great evangelist give a brilliant, pastoral talk on the meaning of faith in public life. During the question-and-answer session, the first questioner said, “Dr. Graham, Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life and no man cometh unto the Father but by me.’ Doesn’t that mean that all non-Christians, including the Jews, are going to hell?”
Graham replied, “God will judge us all. This is a God of love and mercy, but also of justice. We will all come before the judgment of God, and I am so glad that God has that job and I don’t.”
The young questioner looked disappointed. “Could you tell us what you think God is going to say?”
Graham answered, “Well, God doesn’t consult with me on things like that.” The despondent questioner walked away.
That wonderful moment speaks of the humility we can have and show, in the place of our deepest beliefs. That humility combined with an absolute commitment to protect each other’s religious freedom is going to be central now, as we move forward in a religiously angry and divided world. God help us.