Written by Don Byrd

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) veered across an important line protecting religious liberty this week when he questioned the religious views of President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, during his confirmation hearing. In a new column responding to Sanders’ inappropriate criticism, Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Amanda Tyler writes:

Sanders’ line of questioning imposed a religious test, which is forbidden by Article VI of the Constitution. I share the outrage voiced by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, National Review writer David French and others regarding the exchange. Sanders went so far as to even question Vought’s fitness for citizenship, saying he “is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” These comments violate the spirit of the Constitution, as did those of Sen. Chris Van Hollen when, in his defense of Sanders, Van Hollen said that Vought’s comments “suggest a violation of the public trust.”

At issue is Sanders’ critique during the hearing of a 2016 article written by Vought, in which the nominee expressed his belief as a Christian that, according to Scripture, accepting Jesus is the only path to salvation. The article articulated this view by stating, in a passage seized by Senator Sanders, that Muslims “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

As Tyler’s response points out, Sanders seems to have equated wrongly Vought’s religious belief in one path to salvation with a political viewpoint that would diminish the status of American Muslims. Citing theologian Miroslav Volf’s recent book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, she explains that “religious exclusivists can be political pluralists at the same time.”

Volf’s preeminent example of such a person is Roger Williams, whom he describes as the “father of political pluralism” as well as “an intransigent defender of religious truth if ever there was one.” Williams, who founded both Rhode Island and the First Baptist Church in America, helped establish religious freedom as a core value for our country.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference to Senator Sanders, but in fact it is central to understanding and preserving our national commitment to religious freedom. As Tyler explains well in defending the constitutional principle of “no religious test for office,” protecting political pluralism includes protecting an individual’s right to believe in religious exclusivism. 

Read her entire column.

For video of the Sanders-Vought exchange, see NPR’s coverage here.