I hesitated before writing this post. It defends a religious perspective that I find distasteful and will draw criticism from many whom I usually consider allies. No matter how balanced I try to be, no matter how careful my choice of words, what I say is likely to be misunderstood.
So why am I writing it? Since the incident detailed below came to my attention, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. It encapsulates the extent to which religion has become a focus of the political polarization that has infected America. It demonstrates the increasing difficulty of communication between those approaching public issues from religious and secular perspectives.
The incident in question is far from breaking news, but it remains relevant as a barometer of our cultural polarization. It occurred in June of 2017 at a Senate committee hearing on the confirmation of Russell Vought as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget. During the hearing, Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont questioned Vought about a post he had written more than a year earlier for a conservative website called The Resurgent. The Young Turks Network, an on-line “progressive” network which caters to millennials and is strongly supportive of Sanders, posted a YouTube clip containing Sanders’ questioning of Vought and a follow-up discussion about that exchange by two Young Turks’ journalists. I happened upon that clip months later during a casual perusal of Young Turks-related YouTube clips.
Vought’s Facebook post was written in defense of his alma mater, Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school. The school had dismissed a professor for signing a statement of solidarity with Muslims that the school found to be in violation of its mandatory statement of faith. (I have no further knowledge of the underlying dispute at Wheaton, which is not relevant to this post.)
Sanders’ grilling of Vought focused on one passage in his post for The Resurgent:
Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected J_____ C______ his Son, and they stand condemned.
Armed with that quote, Sanders bullied Vought, asking him repeatedly whether he stood by that statement. When Vought, in response, sought to explain the difference between his private views as an evangelical Christian and his duty as a public officer, Sanders cut him off. When Sanders, seeking to strengthen his point, asked if Jews also “stand condemned,” Vought who had seemed shocked by the verbal onslaught, finally managed to make clear that his theological views of the eternal destination of Jews or Muslims had nothing do with how he would behave toward them if confirmed:
I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs.
That response should have satisfied Sanders, but he was not mollified. He dramatically announced his intention to vote against Vought’s confirmation:
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.
What made watching that exchange particularly frustrating was the realization that while Sanders and Vought appeared to be speaking the same language, in fact they really weren’t. It was clear from Sanders questioning that what had sparked his anger was Vought’s use of the word “condemned.” When Vought used that word in his Resurgence post, he used it — as a Christian speaking to other Christians about a dispute involving a Christian school’s statement of faith — in its Christian theological sense of being denied salvation. When Sanders read that word, however, he clearly understood it in its colloquial sense as a moral denunciation. In the course of their exchange, Vought kept saying that he was a Christian, by which he meant that he used a Christian vocabulary and considered religious issues in a Christian framework. Before he could explain that, however, Sanders cut him off impatiently, saying:
I understand you are a Christian, but this country is made up of other people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world.
In addition to having no conceptual framework for understanding what Vought meant by the word “condemned” Sanders clearly has a very different understanding of the role religion plays in the life of a believer. To him, it appears, religion is just an identity, a label chosen for convenience and easily discarded when necessary for a higher calling like politics. The notion that Vought’s understanding of Christianity creates a framework of values that gives his life meaning is incomprehensible to Sanders. His Jewishness, clearly, is of little importance to him, and he apparently finds it inconceivable that Vought takes his understanding of Christianity more seriously.
On the YouTube clip that I saw, Sanders’s grilling of Vought was followed by a discussion of that questioning between two Young Turks journalists, Ana Kasparian and Grace Baldridge. Neither had any sympathy for Vought’s position. Kasparian’s lack of sympathy is no surprise, as she is a self-proclaimed atheist who frequently speaks mockingly of religion. Baldrige, however, is the token Christian on a predominantly anti-religious staff, and one might have expected that she would be more sensitive to the obvious disconnect between Sanders’ questions and Vought’s answers. Instead of trying to clarify the conceptual differences between Sanders and Vought, she just echoed Kasparian’s viewpoint, albeit with a slightly religious coloration.
In fairness to Kasparian and Baldrige, they did try to provide their audience with some balance by quoting excerpts from an article that had appeared in the Atlantic, written by Emma Green, whose regular beat there includes religion. (Green’s article can be found on https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/bernie-sanders-chris-van-hollen-russell-vought/529614.) Unlike the two Young Turks reporters, Green clearly understood the exchange for what it was:
Where Sanders saw Islamophobia and intolerance, Vought believed he was stating a basic principle of his belief as an evangelical Christian […] And where Sanders believed he was policing bigotry in public office, others believed he was imposing a religious test.
When the Framers drafted the Constitution, they sought to protect religious pluralism through Article VI, which provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In the context of their exchange, it was Sanders, not Vought who as Green put it delicately, “flirted with the boundaries of this rule.”
As a Jew, I can certainly understand why Sanders might find Vought’s stated beliefs offensive. (It’s noteworthy that Sanders primarily questioned Vought’s attitude to Muslims and added Jews only as an afterthought). The beliefs of evangelical Christians regarding the eternal destination of non-Christians is not a comfortable one to contemplate. There have certainly been periods of history, moreover, in which some branches of Christianity seemed determined to enable Jews to experience in this world what those Christians believed awaited them in the next — although evangelical Protestants, it’s worth noting, have no history of violent anti-Semitism.
The Framers wanted no repeat of such events in the new country they were building. They knew that citizens of different religious affiliations could live together harmoniously only if religion was not permitted to serve as a gatekeeper to public life. Thus, at a time that entry into the British Parliament still required an oath to be taken “on the true faith of a Christian,” the framers prohibited all religious tests for public office.
Of course, individuals in the privacy of the voting booth can use what ever criteria they want; we can’t police the inner reaches of someone’s conscience to determine why he made the decisions he did. But in the public square, preference of one religion over another is discouraged by the ban of religious tests for federal office. If the ban of religious tests has any meaning, then surely Sanders violated it by announcing that he would vote against confirming a nominee for a federal office because of that nominee’s expressed religious beliefs. Sanders was entitled to ascertain whether Vought, if confirmed, would treat Christians and non-Christians equally and fairly, and as noted above, he received that assurance. That line of questioning should have ended there.
Sanders’ attitude toward religion is worrisome, particularly because he has a significant chance of being the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. As a long-term cultural indicator, however, the reactions of Kasparian and Baldridge are a more serious concern. Recent surveys have indicated that millennials are significantly less sympathetic to religion, on average, than earlier age cohorts. Such attitudinal statistics tend to vary with time, but at this point the overall trend seems fairly clear.
Both Baldridge and Kasparian were raised with regular church attendance yet neither seemed to have any understanding of the mindset of the seriously religious. In this, it seems to me, they are typical of their generation. Growing up in the digital age, millennials by and large are not fans of deferred gratification, which is the essence of religion. Raised to be critical thinkers, they are reluctant to take anything on faith. Of course, any such broad brush stereotype of an entire generation is by definition an exaggeration. There are plenty of millennials who defy the stereotype, but it’s accurate enough to be worrisome.
Our religious institutions, it seems to me, also have to shoulder some of the blame. Kasparian and Baldrige, after all, displayed not so much a rejection of a religious perspective as an incomprehension of it. But if young women who grew up in church-going families are unable to understand the essence of a religious approach to life, what does that say about the quality of the religious training which they received?
I don’t mean this to be a counsel of despair. America is still the most religious of the major industrialized nations. Even among millennials, there remains an ingrained respect for religious institutions that you would be hard put to find in most Western European nations. That respect, however, is not an inexhaustible resource. The churches, synagogues and other religious institutions, if they want to compete for the hearts and minds of millennials — and of the age cohorts that will follow them — will need to improve the quality of the religious educations they offer. They will have to be prepared to persuade them that a religious perspective has something valuable to offer the modern world and that a genuinely religious pluralism, as our country’s founders recognized, is one of America’s greatest strengths.