Several opinion pieces criticized a decision by Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders last Wednesday to vote no on the appointment of a Trump nominee based on their religious beliefs. Did Sanders impose a religious litmus test when considering the nominee?
During a Senate hearing, Sanders questioned nominee Russell Vought, a devout Christian, about his views and attitudes toward other religions including Islam.
Sanders all but accused Vought of Islamophobia, citing a theological article he wrote in which he called Muslims spiritually “condemned.” Vought defended his article as being consistent with his Christian faith. Sanders announced he would not vote for the nominee on the grounds that Vought’s views are un-American.
As part of the separation of church and state, the Constitution prohibits the government from applying a religious test to decide the suitability of a citizen for public office. By evaluating Vought on the basis of his religious convictions, Sanders violated the spirit of the Constitution.
At a hearing to consider Vought for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Sanders repeatedly pressed the nominee about an article he wrote that discusses the Christian doctrine of salvation.
Sanders: You wrote, ‘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.’ Do you believe that statement is Islamaphobic?
Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.
In his piece, Vought explains a core tenet of his Christian faith – that anyone who believes in Jesus, as God’s Son, will be spiritually saved, and that anyone who rejects the divinity of Jesus will be eternally condemned.
His article focuses on Islam in particular because he wrote, in part, to rebut a professor at his alma mater, a private Christian university. The professor wrote that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” Vought writes in his article that Christians do not worship the same God because Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus.
Vought defends this view in his piece by citing John 3:18, “Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” In the article, Vought explains that those who do not believe in Jesus and his divinity do not know God and stand spiritually condemned.
The hearing became tense as Sanders pressed Vought on his use of the word condemned.
Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country is made of people who are not just – I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to 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 continued to press Vought on the idea of condemnation and ultimately announced that he would not vote for the nominee.
“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,” said Sanders.
By disqualifying Vought on the basis of his religious convictions, Sanders violated the spirit of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution that reads, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This test includes evaluating a candidate’s religious views.
Oliver Ellsworth, a drafter of the Constitution, defined a religious test this way:
“A religious test is an act to be done, or profession to be made, relating to religion…for the purpose of determining whether his religious opinions are such, that he is admissible to a public office.”
Sanders questioned Vought about his religious opinions then decided Vought was unqualified for public office based on that cross-examination. Sanders’ actions constitute a religious test.
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