Why Bernie Sanders' Attack on Christian Theology was a Serious Political Blunder

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Why Bernie Sanders' Attack on Christian Theology was a Serious Political Blunder

“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.”

That’s the statement from Russ Vought, the nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget that caught the attention of Sen. Bernie Sanders in preparation for his confirmation hearing Wednesday. How you see that statement very likely depends on your own personal theology.

But by making this an issue of theology instead of policy, Sanders hurt his movement—and potentially his chance to become president in 2020—more than he probably realizes.

I say this as a diehard Bernie supporter who would like to see his progressive tent grow. His message of economic justice is appealing to young Evangelicals, Catholics and mainline protestants who recognize that there are more admonitions in the Bible against greed than there are verses dealing with homosexuality, abortion or any other hot-button topic on the right.

I don’t say this to defend Vought, whose article Wheaton College and the Preservation of Theological Clarity condemns a professor for stating the belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I thought Wheaton’s actions betrayed the kind of theological close-mindedness and arrogance that’s helped push me away from orthodox, traditional Christian faith.

But why Sanders’ attack was such a political blunder is because of that—what Voight was expressing was traditional Christian belief. If you’re not a believer in that faith, hearing that someone believes that you’re condemned to eternal hell is pretty offensive. Most Christians won’t even talk about that in polite company. But it’s a core tenet of many Christian traditions—not just evangelical Christianity, but Catholicism, the Orthodox Church and some mainline Protestant churches including many historically black churches. Sure, there are plenty of congregations within all those denominations who, like the universalist church, would balk at the idea that non-believers stand condemned if they don’t claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior, but for a significant percentage of this country, that message is central to their faith.

Sanders wasn’t attacking Vought’s defense of Wheaton (who, as a private college, was establishing a strict religious test for employment). He was attacking Vought’s belief that all non-Christians are headed for hell if they don’t convert to Christianity.

Vought’s idea might seem repulsive to you. But it shouldn’t disqualify anyone from public service. If you want to argue that it does, it becomes much more difficult to attract anyone holding that belief to your cause. And if you confuse the conviction that Jesus is the only path to salvation with active bigotry towards Muslims, Jews and atheists, you’re going to effectively dig a giant ditch between you and a large swath of the American voting public.

I have friends who are gravely concerned about the future of religious liberty—the ability to hold the tenets of Christianity without being discriminated against. You might have very little sympathy for a group that has enjoyed all the benefits of a powerful majority for the history of our nation, but angry, animated insinuations that historical Christian beliefs are tantamount to bigotry and disqualifying for a federal department like the Office of Budget and Management are why some evangelicals fear a future onslaught on their beliefs.

The irony here is that Sanders was trying to defend Muslims from someone who thinks their theology is deficient. But what about the Muslim who believes in the exclusivity of his own religion in finding eternal salvation? Is that person also disqualified from office? Our founding fathers gave us a tremendous gift in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution: ”...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Legally, Sanders likely has the right to vote against confirmation based on a belief that Vought’s theology would prevent him from representing all Americans. But in doing so, he’s essentially saying that anyone who holds to the doctrine of Solo Christo (that salvation comes exclusively through the work of Christ’s atonement) is a bigot, regardless of how they treat their fellow Americans. One can only assume this would also apply to Muslims who believe that salvation only comes from worshipping God and following His commandments.

The Democratic Party has done a poor job courting evangelical Christians to their cause, despite the fact that younger evangelicals are more likely than their parents to care about environmental issues, income inequality, LGBTQ rights, police violence and other core issues of the left. It was my hope that the progressive movement wouldn’t make the same mistakes, but this outburst may have just alienated a segment of the population that might have seen him as a preferable alternative to Donald Trump and establishment Democrats. At a minimum, he provided fodder for people who fear their personal beliefs are under attack. At worst, this was might become his “cling to guns and religion” or “basket of deplorables” moment—something for opponents to point to and show that Sanders is another politician on the left who believes that religious faith doesn’t really belong in 21st-century pluralistic America.