Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders grilled Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for a position at the Office of Management and Budget, over the following statement, “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.”Russell Vought’s statement echoed the words of John 3:18, which states that the unbeliever is “condemned already.” Senator Sanders questioned Vought repeatedly over Vought’s use of the word “condemned” and concluded that Mr. Vought “…is not really someone who this country is supposed to be about.” A full transcript and a video of this exchange is available here.
In this episode of the podcast, I discuss this exchange in detail with Brian Schuette and Larry Crain. Larry is an accomplished Constitutional litigator, including cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and in several state Supreme Courts. He has also litigated at the trial court level complex free speech and religious liberty issues in over 26 states. Larry previously served as General Counsel for the Rutherford Institute and Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice. He founded Church Law Institute and serves as Senior Counsel at Bold Church Initiative. You can find his full biography here.
Larry discusses his analysis of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution as applied to this exchange between Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, and we discuss the cultural and spiritual implications of this conversation.
In sum, this exchange is not an isolated, outrageous incident. Rather, it represents a basic reinterpretation/abrogation of the First Amendment and a movement of people that are determined to apply that reinterpretation/abrogation to American public life. Here are our thoughts on the legal, cultural and spiritual implications of this exchange:
Larry Crain states that such a line of questioning is unconstitutional per Article VI of the United States Constitution, which states in part: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Larry points to the case McDaniel v. Paty, which struck down a Tennessee standard blocking ministers from public office. 435 U.S. 618, 627 (1978).
Larry and Josh also discuss the history of this provision (dating back to English and early Colonial history; many colonies required specific religious oaths prior to taking public office) and the policy behind it.
Larry concludes this section by encouraging Christians and especially Christian attorneys to push back against such attempts to “scandalize” orthodox Christian beliefs.
Senator Sanders did not attack Mr. Vought for his belief in the Christian sexual ethic or his belief in the sanctity of life (the more traditional “culture war” topics). Rather, this exchange confirms that the comfortable, Christian civic religion that defined American society in the mid-part of the last century is all but forgotten. Brian Schuette relates several eye-opening exchanges he has had on social media concerning fairly routine religious freedom protections. As Justice Alito said recently to a group of Catholic attorneys, “…[T]he most important fight is for the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. It is up to all of us to evangelize our fellow Americans about the issue of religious freedom.”
Bernie Sanders expressed moral outrage at the concept of salvation through Jesus Christ alone. But, most religions make absolute truth claims. Sanders himself made a moral, quasi-spiritual judgment (someone that believes that Muslims will not enter heaven is not fit to enter federal government). We need to clearly explain the following: Christianity is an ultimate truth claim followed by an ultimate sacrifice to bring others to that truth. For the Christian, to follow the way of Jesus means to love, respect and even die for your neighbor. The secular sees an exclusive truth claim as the very definition of pride and bigotry. The Christian knows that it is rather a call to humility and service. In a nation that is increasingly pluralistic, the message of the Christian Gospel will stand out as distinct, even odd. This is reprehensible to some. This is good news for the Church, because we will have an opportunity to retell the story of the Gospel. May we explain it carefully and clearly. Finally, we should not be surprised by such rancor. Jesus reminded the disciples in John 15:18 that “…it [the world] hated me before it hated you.”