To the Honorable Bernie Sanders,
Your line of questioning to Russell Vought in a confirmation hearing this past week was way out of Constitutional line. You were wrong to press Mr. Vought on his religious beliefs.
Like Mr. Vought, I am an evangelical Christian and I too believe in hell. It does not matter how many others share our belief. The Constitution is explicit that there is to be zero religious testing. Yet, upon hearing his stated views on hell and his commitment to the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as means of eternal salvation, you said, “This nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”
Technically, you don’t have to give a reason to vote no on this man’s nomination. The reason you cannot use is that you disagree with his views on life hereafter or whether Jesus is the only way. As Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution states: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
To be honest, I don’t see religious liberty as a central concern of mine. The church is not called to self-preservation; witness to the Truth as I understand it entails a willingness to suffer and die. I have observed that the church and the faith of its people are often more robust when in a minority, even oppressed setting. I’d rather have robustness of faith than over-weening favor.
Even so, the line of questioning you used in this hearing presents a danger to our society, and on this basis I object to your actions in the confirmation hearing. Please allow me to explain.
The so-called separation of church and state clause is in our Constitution’s first amendent for two reasons: 1) to protect the church (and other religious bodies) from unnecessary interference by the government; and 2) to protect the church (and other religious bodies) from losing their spiritual and moral vitality by becoming overly entangled with the affairs of state. The separation clause is of protective value to faith communities, which are vital to the health of our society.
At the same time, the separation clause and the religious test clause do not disbar people of faith (or non-faith) from engaging in government or exercising their values in determining or executing state policy. Communities and individuals of faith can and should exert influence on society in general and government policy in particular. Individuals of faith should run for office and be willing to serve in all areas of government. The separation principle is about institutional entanglement, not about the expression or promotion of value.
I don’t think you want a valueless government anymore than I do. A valueless government is something no one on the right or left wants. In fact, that is why you pressed that line of questioning, isn’t it, Sir? You were so concerned about values that you wanted to bar someone with a different set of values from getting into a lower level position at the Office of Management and Budget.
Therein lies the rub. The Constitution does not allow for discrimination against one set of values over another, other than the principle that all people, regardless of their beliefs, are equal under the law. The only values test allowed for government officials is whether they will agree to uphold the Constitution. When we ignore the Constitutional ban on religious tests, we pose grave danger to our society and its government.
Our nation faces increased polarization. We do well to avoid feeding that fire. This past weekend people have been in the streets marching against Sharia law and promoting what I personally see as hate speech. I oppose what these marches stand for – though I do not oppose their right to march. And I oppose any attempt to treat Muslims (or any other religious group or non-religious group) differently. Are you going to ask the same questions of the first Muslim who enters your hearing room? I pray not.
Our nation’s first motto was E pluribus unum: one out of many. We thrive on our diversity, including our religious diversity, and freedom. There is a reason that the only place in the original Constitution where religion is mentioned is in this ban on religious tests.
Not that you noticed, but I didn’t vote for you in this last election cycle. Actually, I “voted” for none of the candidates for the office of President. For the first time in my voting life, I could not even “hold my nose,” as some urged. That’s not to say I didn’t agree with some of your positions or that I devalue you as a person. But I will say that my nay vote on you and your co-candidates had nothing to do with anyone’s religiously-held perspectives.
You failed the test – the religious question test – this past week, Senator Sanders. I urge you to retake the test and uphold the entire Constitution as you have pledged to do.
(For more information on the Senate hearing referred to above and for the video showing the exact line of questioning by Senator Bernie Sanders, go to http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/09/532116365/is-it-hateful-to-believe-in-hell-bernie-sanders-questions-prompt-backlash)