Over the weekend I began seeing stories, with associated video, about Bernie Sanders establishing a religious litmus test for public office during a recent confirmation hearing. Having watched the video, and read people’s responses to it, I’ve got some thoughts to share.

First, to my Evangelical kin who are shouting, “Foul!” at the senator’s comments. Remember all that language you use about America being a “Christian Nation?” Remember the passion with which, prior to President Trump’s ascendency, you used to insist only a godly man 1 should ever be allowed to run for president? Remember the whispers of Obama being a “secret muslim,” and the conservative religious protest over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque?”

When your own community has been busy establishing a populist religious litmus test for the entire country 2, don’t be shocked when your logic is flipped on its head and used against you. Right now it looks like what you’re really upset about is that someone has stolen your favorite ball and started playing their own game.

Second, to the honorable Senator and those progressives who are overjoyed at his remarks. Two attitudes which violate the heart of Constitutional affirmations of free religious practice do not make a right. What I find frustrating in all this is the continued assertion one’s religious views must be in line with whatever cultural ethos happens to be in ascendence at the time. In our age that is absolute pluralism, so anyone with a conviction which would undermine this cultural norm must be barred entry to public life and office. It doesn’t matter if the Christian creed, which describes Christian worship, holds that Jesus “will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” That’s not what the country is about, so we must silence their public participation. Tolerance, after all, has its limits.

The problem is, the United States doesn’t revolve around a proclamation of religious tolerance. We’re supposed to practice religious freedom. The government doesn’t have a right demand a religious litmus test to hold public office, nor can they use a religious conviction as a means of barring someone from office. This is a good thing which, sadly, we’ve not practiced with the generosity it demands. I’ve mentioned the Evangelical penchant for limiting religious freedom to their own tribe — trying to make atheists, Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Jews feel like outsiders in the nation. But, let’s be honest, this isn’t a one way street. The “Freedom From Religion Foundation” is ideologically opposed to religious expression. There are Jewish housing communities in Lakewood, NJ which are known to expect their Gentile neighbors to adhere to their religious needs. In towns where politics has become the state religion, try being a member of a dissenting “faith.”

But, even though our practice is uneven, the idea is good. And having a vibrant religious faith does not have to mean forcing the exclusion of all faiths from the public sphere. I take Roger Williams as my example for what this can look like. Williams, who is too often incorrectly identified as “the founder the Baptist movement in America 3,” is recognized as the founder of the Rhode Island colony. Even though he eventually withdrew from formal church membership, he remained Orthodox in belief. But his experiences in both England and Massachusetts led him to conclude there could be no legitimately organized Church this side of Christ’s second coming 4. Williams held strong convictions, but he fought to keep his colony free for people of any faith to come, settle, and practice. This included Quakers, a group Williams personally despised and with whom he frequently held public debates regarding their theology. Yet, even noting his public debates, Williams believed this group of people should be free to live without molestation, and to be considered full members of the community. For him, freedom really meant freedom — and that type of generosity is something we need to recapture today.

I will say this. Russell Vought did a poor job of explaining his particular brand of Christianity’s understanding of the final judgement. I chalk that up to the shallow theological pools which now form Evangelicalism 5. Mr. Vought could have pointed to Augustine’s City of God as a way of establishing his ability to act equitably as a Christian in a pluralist society. Instead, he chose a more round-about way to explain his position. When the Senator cut off this response 6 Mr. Vought restarted his script instead of responding directly. This increased Senator Sanders annoyance level each time the interruption cycle was iterated 7. Ultimately, he became so annoyed he cut off his line of questioning and uttered the remarks now being spread on social media. But I don’t think the words were voiced out of frustration. If Mr. Vought had his script, so did the Senator. He knew how he wanted to conclude his time.

Both Mr. Vought and Senator Sanders seem to possess an understanding of religious freedom which bolsters their own political ideology. But that’s the problem. When religious freedom is bound to political ideology it is demoted to tolerance, which may be granted or seized back at the whim of the tides of cultural power. Tolerance is not a belief through which a free society is able to function.

  1. That is, a Christian godly man. 
  2. Rejecting the Constitutional affirmation of the free practice of religion in the process. 
  3. He was a Baptist for a blip on the radar screen of his life. I suspect I will suffer the pain of hearing this poor rendering of history for the rest of my earthly existence. 
  4. Because the Papists had corrupted the faith too much. So much for the patron saint of enlightened attitudes. 
  5. Evangelicalism has a long history of depth, personal enthusiasm, and social engagement. But, outside a foreign missionary context, its geared to function in a world where their faith (all Christian branches, not just their own) is the cultural norm. Because this is no longer the case, what you’re seeing in Neo-Evangelicalism is a circling of the wagons. The result is a shallow pool of thought, especially when compared to its own history. 
  6. And I do believe Senator Sanders was out of line here. 
  7. $annoyance++; 

One Comment

  1. Interesting thoughts. Of course you’re right about Williams and his being a Baptist. We’re seeing some of that still happening in our time. I’m glad to have you as a friend and fellow searcher of the text and the times and the affect of culture on what we call faith.

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