Having said that, the issue of religious freedom is a bipartisan issue clearly supported by the United States Constitution – and I have no reluctance for speaking to, or defending, that freedom.
The big news last week was the attack on religious freedom by two U.S. Senators. The person under religious attack was Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Russell Vought is an alumni of Wheaton College, a strongly evangelical Christian school. Approximately a year and a half ago, a Wheaton professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins stated that Muslims and Christians worship the same God – which is, according to the message of the Bible vs. the message of the Quran, blatantly false. (For a brief explanation of the exclusivity of the world’s major religions click here.) While still a professor at Wheaton, Hawkins had written, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Wheaton College terminated Dr. Hawkins. As you can imagine, a firestorm of debate ensued. One of the editorials written in the weeks that followed Dr. Hawkins’ termination was one by Mr. Vought explaining the discrepancy between Islamic and Biblical theology. You can read that editorial here.
At Mr. Vought’s confirmation hearing last week, two Senators – Bernie Sanders & Christopher Van Hollen Jr. – asked probing questions about Mr. Vought’s Christian faith. But they didn’t stop there. What followed was an overt attack on Mr. Vought’s Christian faith and how, in the senators’ opinion, Mr. Vought’s faith makes him unqualified to serve in public office. The attack on Vought’s Christian faith was done under the guise that his Christian faith might impede his ability to treat people fairly. You can view the the exchange between Sanders & Vought below. It’s less than 3 minutes in length.
Clearly, Senator Sanders’ implication is that one’s faith should be a litmus test to serve in public office. This is where the real firestorm exploded. Sanders defiantly defended his comments by saying, “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.” So, here Mr. Sanders makes a fundamental mistake: he defends one of the world’s religions (Islam) and attacks another (Christianity). It is significant to understand that, both, Islam and Christianity make exclusive claims for truth. But, alas, only Christianity gets attacked.
And, speaking of Christianity, Senator Christopher Van Hollen Jr., offered this convoluting comment. Speaking to Mr. Vought, he says,
“I think it is irrefutable that these kinds of comments suggest to a whole lot of Americans that, number one . . . you are condemning people of all faiths. I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian in my view is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God. . . .
I’m happy the senator said, “…in my view…” Because, clearly, the Senator is sorely unfamiliar with his Bible. He is justified in saying that “there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God.” No one disagrees with that. However, according to the Bible, there’s only one way to know the God of the Bible: through faith in his son, Jesus Christ.
The Huffington Post defended Sanders’ statements, creating their own version of logic. The author, James Zogby, wrote:
It is Vought, not Sanders who has used a religious test to support the firing of a tenured professor. His demonstrated intolerance is a disturbing trait for someone in public service. Vought may claim that all are “worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs”, but when it came to Professor Hawkins, a fellow Christian, Vought behaved quite differently, precisely because her description of her faith did not comport with his narrow interpretation of Christian theology.
Zogby’s logic is myopic and erroneous. Dr. Hawkins was teaching non-Christian doctrine at an expressly evangelical Christian college, and was not running for public office. (I would invite Mr. Zogby to try and teach non-Islamic doctrine at an Islamic school and see what happens next.) Comparing the two stories is an argument based on Zogby’s errant logic, biased opinion and gross ignorance of the biblical gospel.
As expected, the ACLU, quickly jumped to Sanders’ defense by writing:
“Religious freedom is such a fundamental liberty that the framers of our Constitution enshrined it in the First Amendment. That’s why it’s so disturbing that Trump continues to pack his administration with appointees like Russell Vought, whose views threaten that very freedom.”
Once again, every world religion is given a pass – except Christianity. The hypocrisy was deafening. And the world noticed.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention responded to Sanders’ comments. He said:
Senator Sanders’ comments are breathtakingly audacious and shockingly ignorant — both of the Constitution and of basic Christian doctrine. Even if one were to excuse Senator Sanders for not realizing that all Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation, it is inconceivable that Senator Sanders would cite religious beliefs as disqualifying an individual for public office in defiance of the United States Constitution. No religious test shall ever be required of those seeking public office. While no one expects Senator Sanders to be a theologian, we should expect far more from an elected official who has taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution.
Sen. James Lankford (I’ve met Senator Lankford) warned that Sanders’ comments come “dangerously close to crossing a clear constitutional line for how we evaluate qualifications for public service.” He continued,
“The First Amendment is crystal clear that the federal government must protect every American’s right to the peaceful and free exercise of religion. We cannot say we have the free exercise of religion and also require people to practice their faith only in a way that government officials prefer.”
Emma Green, writing for the secular publication, The Atlantic, defended Vought:
It’s one thing to take issue with bigotry. It’s another to try to exclude people from office based on their theological convictions. Sanders used the term “Islamophobia” to suggest that Vought fears Muslims for who they are. But in his writing (in his editorial for Wheaten College), Vought was contesting something different: He disagrees with what Muslims believe, and does not think their faith is satisfactory for salvation. Right or wrong, this is a conviction held by millions of Americans—and many Muslims might say the same thing about Christianity.
As you can imagine, Twitter blew up over this story. NYT Best-Selling author, Eric Metaxas, tweeted,
“What [Sen. Sanders] did was in fact so bad, and so un-American, that we should be demanding his resignation. It is a stunning moment in our history.”
And the conservative news site, The Federalist, disseminated all the jargon by tweeting simply, “Senator Sanders doesn’t think Christians are fit for public office.”
A friend of mine from HBU (he lives in the beautiful state of Vermont – the state Sanders represents) wrote a blog entitled, Senator Bernie Sanders and the Inverse Religious Test for Civil Service. He writes, “Dear Senator Sanders,…
“…a worldview that affirms all other worldviews to be true is a contradiction in and of itself because it is evidently not true that all worldviews can be simultaneously true… The issue is that when you hold certain beliefs, you are espousing a particular worldview, and that worldview is inevitably at odds with other worldviews… You claim to embrace tolerance, but you are in fact being intolerant of Mr. Vought simply because of his freely chosen religious beliefs. That is hypocrisy.”
In the Washington Post, Jim Wallace wrote an editorial with the following subtitle: Democrats could stand to know more about religion. Christians also need to express our beliefs without vitriol. After reading Wallace’s article, I found it’s Wallace who needs to learn more about what Jesus said and did. He would find this: the gospel, by its very nature, is offensive. It tells us we’re hopeless sinners in desperate need of a Savior. And it tells us that those who die, having not professed their faith in Christ, will stand in judgment of hell. You can’t proclaim the gospel of Jesus and count on everyone liking you – just ask Jesus. They crucified him.
Senator Sanders exposed his true motive during the hearing. He has little interest in religious freedom – if you’re a Christian. Additionally, he has no concept of the fundamental differences between world religions. Finally, he is accusing Mr. Vought of making daily decisions based on his convictions when he is doing the very thing: deciding to attack Mr. Vought based on his own convictions. Religious or not, do we not all live our lives based on fundamental principles in which we strongly believe?
Let me be perfectly clear – if this story were turned around 180 degrees, and an evangelical Christian Senator had attacked the religious convictions of a political nominee representing a different religion, I would be writing the same opinion piece on behalf of the individual who was being marginalized and harassed. If you don’t like someone’s religious faith or worldview – and they’re running for public office – don’t vote for them. But, we must never personally attack them because of their faith or suggest they are less of a person solely because they don’t hold to the same convictions/worldview we do.
The moment we allow this to take place in government is the moment Religious Freedom will be a thing of the past.
I titled this blog “Freedom of Religion? Yes. Freedom of Biblical Christianity? Not so much.” Here’s why: (1) I use the term “biblical Christianity” because the term “Christian” is widely used and, as such, means different things to different people. For instance, in this blog both, Dr. Hawkins and Senator Van Hollen Jr., refer to themselves as Christians while, apparently, holding to doctrines not taught in the Bible. (2) While some might prefer to remove religious principles from any and all decisions made by those serving in public office, it is logically impossible to divorce someone’s decisions from what they believe – we’re not robots.
We all have convictions, beliefs and principles that drive our daily decisions and make us who we are. Senator Sanders, here, defends Islamic faith, while attacking Christian faith. If this is true (and I don’t see any other way to interpret it), then Senator Sanders – and those who defend his statements – represent those who, according to their words, believe in the freedom of religion – as long as it’s not the Christian faith.
In sum, if Senator Sanders were to read a Bible I suspect he would never have attacked Mr. Vought’s Christian faith. For, he would see in the gospels that, although Jesus clearly states he is the only way to God, he never imposed his convictions on a single person. On the contrary, he preached the truth and left the decision to trust him solely up to the listener, even when his message resulted in many people choosing to no longer follow him. Jesus never compromised the truth of his message (and this made him a lot of enemies), but he treated all people equally, with love and respect.
All the way to the Cross.
Soli Deo Gloria, Nick