Bernie Sanders Is a Lousy Theologian

Distant cousins.

Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, got shouty with a Trump nominee to the Office of Management and Budget the other day. (Start at the 44-minute mark here.) What set him off wasn’t the administration’s positions on the budget, vehemently though he disagrees with them. It was the views that the nominee, Russell Vought, had expressed about Islam.

Vought has written that Muslims have a “deficient theology,” that “they do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” Sanders demanded to know whether Vought thought the same of Jews — Vought’s article was about a specific controversy involving Christian views of Islam — but did not let Vought say his piece. After the hearing, a Sanders spokesman said that “racism and bigotry — condemning an entire group of people because of their faith — cannot be part of any public policy.”

But Vought’s argument had little to do with public policy, and it wasn’t bigoted. Any religion is going to consider alternative religions theologically deficient. Indeed, anyone who adheres to a body of thought, religious or otherwise, is going to consider bodies of thought that are incompatible with it deficient to at least some extent. When you claim that some specific propositions are true, you are necessarily rejecting others.

It’s not clear that Sanders or his spokesman understand Vought’s point in the first place. In saying that Muslims “stand condemned,” he wasn’t denying that they can exhibit upright conduct or be good citizens. He was saying that going to heaven requires accepting Christ as Lord.

Not all Christians agree with the theological views of Vought and his defenders. As it happens, I’m one of those Christians who disagree. The Catholic Church teaches that while all who are saved are saved through Christ, He may save those who do not explicitly worship in His church. The Church has excommunicated people who disagree with this point. There are also able Christian defenders of the view that Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God — the view against which Vought was arguing.

I bring this point up not because it has any bearing on Vought’s fitness for office. It doesn’t. Some of Sanders’s critics are, however, going too far in saying that Vought was merely defending “core Christian doctrine.” Assuming Sanders isn’t basing his rejection of Vought entirely on the line about “deficient theology,” it is also incorrect to say that his stance would keep all Christians out of high government posts.

What Sanders is doing is nonetheless wrong. Vought has advanced a defensible and widespread Christian view that poses no threat to the rights of anyone who disagrees with it. The senator should not be using Senate proceedings to sift through theological claims, especially since he appears to be quite bad at it. His attempt is the very opposite of a blow for tolerance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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