Senator Bernie Sanders has come under fire for his harsh treatment of President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget in a heated discussion of religion.
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Russell Vought went before the Senate Budget Committee in a hearing to approve him for the position. Sanders, a committee member, sharply condemned Vought’s post in the conservative blog “The Resurgent” dated January 2016.
Sanders, 75, a former contender for the Democratic presidential nomination and a leading progressive voice, opened his questioning of Vought by stating his negative opinion of the blog post that the nominee penned, saying it is “indefensible it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”
Vought’s piece defended an effort by Vought’s alma mater, Wheaton College to fire Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a professor who had stated publicly that she believed Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The college was seeking her removal on the grounds that her position violated the college’s Christian statement of faith recognizing the centrality of Jesus Christ as being necessary for salvation.
Vought wrote “I am proud of the school and hope they stand their ground” in seeking Hawkin’s termination. Muslims, he said, “do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
Vought argued that professors at Wheaton must firmly adhere to the belief that “knowing God” meant recognizing the primacy of Jesus. “Why downplay the primacy of Jesus Christ in having a relationship with God?” he asked.
When Sanders asked Vought if he acknowledged that his statements were Islamophobic, Vought protested: “Absolutely not. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.”
Sanders then became upset and raised his voice, challenged Vought to explain his views toward American Muslims further. “Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? They stand condemned too?”
After growing impatient with Vought’s repeated responses to his questions by stating that he was a Christian believer, Sanders snapped angrily: “I understand that you are a Christian! There are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?”
Vought continued to attempt and defend his beliefs saying that, “As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
But Sanders was dissatisfied with Vought’s explanation, and abruptly announced to the committee chairman that “this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about” and that he would vote no on his nomination.
In the course of his questioning, Sanders read from a letter to the senators on the committee written by a trio of advocacy organizations: the Arab American Institute. Muslim Advocates, and Bend the Arc Jewish Action, “urging” the lawmakers to reject the Vought nomination, on the grounds that the nominee had “denigrated American Muslims and the Muslim faith” and that “his writings demonstrate a clear hostility to religious pluralism and freedom that disqualify him for any appointment.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention came down hard on Sander's behavior at the hearing releasing a statements, calling them "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."
Criticism of Sanders’ behavior crossed ideological lines among Washington pundits, who indicated that it violated the constitution’s prohibition on “religious tests” for candidates for public office.
David French, writing in the conservative National Review, called Sander’s rhetoric as “a disgraceful and unconstitutional line of questioning from the man who came close to being the Democratic nominee for president. He’s not only imposing a religious test for public office in direct violation of Article VI of the United States Constitution, he’s gone so far as to label this decent man — who’s seeking to serve his country in a vital role — as “not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”
He said that “Bernie Sanders would do well to brush up on his civic education and remember that religious freedom belongs even to citizens (and nominees) he doesn’t like.”
The more liberal “The Atlantic,” was equally critical. “It’s one thing to take issue with bigotry,” wrote Emma Green. “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, 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.