Friendly Atheist Unfriendly to Bernie Sanders' Religious Test

What do Illinois Family Institute’s Laurie Higgins, National Review’s David French, fellow Patheos blogger Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) and I have in common?
We all believe Bernie Sanders was out of line to say he will vote against Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director nominee Russ Vought because of Vought’s religious beliefs.
Mehta has gone out on a limb with his readers to take this position, but I believe it is the right one. Article Six of the Constitution states in part:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

While Sanders may be disgusted by Vought’s religious beliefs, Sanders may not use those beliefs as a test for Vought’s service as an officer of the federal government. As Mehta said in his column (I urge you to read it, it may challenge your views about atheists), Sanders could have taken a different and appropriate approach:

The question Sanders should’ve asked is whether Vought’s beliefs about non-Christian people would ever influence his treatment of them under the law. Would he treat Muslims (or LGBT people, for that matter) the same way he treats Christians?

I want to know that as well. One of my concerns about dominionist Christians (not saying Vought is, I don’t know) getting into power is that they might favor Christians over others, using a Christian religious test. Perhaps Sanders inappropriate actions can serve as a caution to Christian politicians to consider the Golden Rule in choosing public servants – If you don’t like it when a religious test is used on your in-group, then don’t use one on members of out-groups.

No Religious Test

As far as I can tell, the “no religious test” clause was first suggested by Charles Pinckney, delegate from South Carolina to the Constitutional Convention. On May 29, 1787, Pinckney laid his plan before the Convention where it was sent to committee. Then much later on August 20, Pinckney was able to bring it to the floor. The religious test portion said:

No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office, under the authority of the United States.

In his defense of the plan, Pinckney wrote:

The next Article l provides for the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus — the Trial by Jury in all cases, Criminal as well as Civil — the Freedom of the Press, and the prevention of Religious Tests, as qualifications to Offices of Trust or Emolument: The three first essential in Free Governments; the last, a provision the world will expect from you, in the establishment of a System founded on Republican Principles, and in an age so liberal and enlightened as the present. (p. 122)

Note that Pinckney believed that a “liberal and enlightened” age required freedom from religious test.
Some might question whether or not we live in an enlightened age. However, it is refreshing when agreement can be found across ideological lines and that agreement is based on the foundational principles of the Republic.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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38 thoughts on “Friendly Atheist Unfriendly to Bernie Sanders' Religious Test”

  1. Warren

    As you might have gathered, I’ve been thinking alot about this over the past few days.

    I agree that the Senator’s questioning was focused in the wrong place, but there is forming in my mind another question: is it necessary, as part of the practice of one’s religion, to put into the public domain statements such as “all [fill the gap] are condemned before God” (even if such a statement were truthful)?

    (It is of course an entirely separate issue that I find Vought’s statement profoundly troubling, on theological, philosophical and moral grounds, and will resist the temptation vigorously to ‘tear it apart’!)

    1. It might be but it would depend on one’s religion. The religious test is about status (we can’t limit people who practice any or no religion). However, legal philosophy is fair game. Someone who believed that God condemned all left handed people but pledged to treat them equally under the law would be a disgusting person but might actually be a fair jurist. It would be up to the Senator to decide if the personal expression was binding on judging.

      1. Thank you Warren. I can certainly relate to that response.

        There is one truthful statement we can make concerning condemnation: “All people stand condemned before God, but God in his mercy …” 😉

  2. So ‘Bible-believing-evangelical-Christians’ believe there is more than one God (one we worship, one that Muslims worship, and then maybe some more that others worship)?! That’s certainly a new one to me!

    Surely she is correct in what she says: there is one God who is understood and worshiped differently by Muslims and Christians (and indeed different types of Muslims and Christians).

    It looks like Vought, a Bible-believing evangelical Christian, who believes that Christian and Muslims do not worship the same God, interpreted that Hawkins believes in a god described by you in a first paragraph. I do not know for sure if this is what Hawkins believes. Her statement before she resigned sounded ambiguous. The fact remains that in the end of this controversy, she resigned on her own but we do not know all the reasons why. It is quite possible that she disagreed with Vought when he stated that Muslims and those who do not believe in Jesus stand condemned, but that’s a mystery.

    In the USA, religious freedom also allows private religious universities to hire employees who only agree with that particular university’s biblical interpretation. So, if Wheaton would have fired Hawkins (which it didn’t), it would not be doing anything illegal in terms of religious freedom. But the fact that she resigned on her own, allows Wheaton not to question motives for it, due to her rights to privacy.

    Sanders should have not been concerned about Vought’s ‘sweeping statement of Muslims’ since it was a matter of being a public service employee, and Vought has stated that despite his theological beliefs, he would treat Muslims, and all American citizens with love and respect and without prejudice. It was Sanders who demonstrated bigotry and prejudice towards Vought, because he personally found his theological views offensive and assumed the worst possible things about him and publicly humiliated him. This is unacceptable behavior of representative of the US government.

    1. Do you really believe that it is necessary for Christians to believe that anyone ‘outside the club’ is “condemned”?

      As for the legal issues around the Hawkins affair: I’m sure Wheaton made certain that they were ‘within the law’!

      I did not describe a god in the first paragraph of what I wrote.

      1. I really believe that Christians should have a right to believe so and should not be persecuted for that. On the same token, I also believe that those who disagree with such Christians should be given the same respect.

        Didn’t you state that there Christians who supposedly believe there is more than one God: one we worship, one that Muslims worship, and then maybe some more that others worship?

        1. The same “respect”, or the same rights under Federal and State law? Constitutionally, it should surely be the latter? That would seem to me to a truthful approach to “religious freedom”.

          On the issue of salvation: salvation is of God and on God’s terms. Perhaps most explicit indication of what those ‘terms’ might be are in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 : 31 – 46? (I do, of course, respect Vought’s right to say things that I believe are erroneous.)

          The statement “Muslims and Christians worship different gods” implies that there is more than one god. That is what I am suggesting. I believe that there is one God, the nature of whom is best ‘described’ by the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity. Nothing that Hawkins said in that piece I shared with you is in conflict with what I believe.

          1. I think it’s both: “respect” and the same rights under Federal and State law. But legal rights apply differently, depending on whether it’s a public or a private spectrum. John 3:16-18, and John 14:6 state that Jesus is the only way to God and those who do not believe in him, would be condemned. You and Hawkins might share the same beliefs and maybe Vought shares them, we do not know for sure. Maybe, the reason she resigned had nothing to do with theological disagreements with Wheaton.

          2. The question here is what does “Jesus is the only way to God” mean in practice? Does it means belonging to a particular religion? The (Catholic) Church does not teach that, although it can be argued that it used to do so.

            The reality is that the Scriptures appear to give ‘mixed messages’ on this question (there is no mention of ‘belief systems’ in Matthew 25, for example). What is clear is that salvation is very much ‘God’s business’; there is nothing we can do or say to secure our own salvation: no amount of ‘theological correctness’ will carry us to heaven.

            When someone makes definitive statements about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, they IMO run the risk of limiting God. God can do what he likes, and has no need of our approval! But, as Christians, we believe that what God wills is founded upon the Love that is the very core and essence of his Being.

          3. There are different different schools of theology on this matter, and my point that people need to learn to to tolerate each other despite having such differences. The experience with Vought and Sanders proves that it is not happening. Sanders is definitely not a theological expert which befuddles me why the issue of theology should be a concern for a federal financial office?

          4. I agree that there should be tolerance … My view is that what Vought said is garbage, but he should be allowed to say what he believes.

            As outlined in Warren’s post, I think Sanders’ mistake was to focus on Vought’s stated belief and not to explore the possible implications of that belief.

          5. I pretty much share what you just said. I’d like to clarify that people like Vought believe that Christians worship One True God, while Muslims and people of other faiths worship a false god or other false gods. This theological position does not suggest at all that there are many “True Gods” rather than there is only One True God and the rest are false idols. Based on the video of Hawkins, she seemed to be suggesting that Christians and Muslims, despite being different, are worshiping One True God. If that’s the case, then it ran afoul with Wheaton’s statement of faith, but we don’t know if this was the reason why she resigned.

          6. Maybe we shall never be completely clear why Hawkins resigned, except that she felt unable to disown her position in respect of her expressing solidarity with Muslims.

            The dogma of the Church indicates that all the Abrahamic faiths worship the One True God, although they have different understandings of the nature of God. Hawkins’ statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is entirely consistent with orthodox Christian belief. God Is Who God Is, and how any of us might understand him does not affect his nature.

            Different Christian ‘churches’ have different understandings of God: people like me find it hard to relate to the picture of God painted by those who, for example, subscribe to the notion of penal substitution, and would take the view that such a notion is heretical. But that does not mean that different Christian communities are worshipping different gods, rather that they have different understandings of the same God.

            The concept of “false gods” in Scripture applies to gods fashioned by human beings. Muslims do not worship such gods: like us, they worship a God that is revealed to them in their scriptures. Is their idea of God ‘wrong’? I believe that it is. However, I recognize that they understand God to be transcendent, as do we. Furthermore, their faith derives from the Abrahamic tradition, as does ours.

          7. Well, many Protestant denominations teach that finding commonality with Abrahamic faiths in terms of monotheism does not define worshiping One True God. According to Protestants, including evangelicals, worshiping God means believing that Jesus Christ died for people’s sins so people can escape condemnation. To put it simple, according to many Protestants, salvation and worship are not mutually exclusive. But despite this, they also teach Christians are required to treat all people, especially non-believers with love and kindness, like Jesus did.

          8. So when Jews, for example, worship, it isn’t really worship? Is that what evangelicals believe?

          9. At least this is not as mind-bogglingly idiotic as the proposition that good works by non-Christians are worthless, and I would sincerely hope that not even the whackiest characters from this tradition would suggest such a thing.

          10. Most Protestants, but not all, believe that good works are important aspects of faith but salvation is free to all that comes through faith.

          11. Okay. I am being a little feisty, I must admit!

            I have evangelical friends and have visited their worshipping communities. Generally, I find them much more reasonable than the characters that crop up in posts on this blog!

          12. But, don’t they believe that you don’t need to do good works in order to receive salvation? That by a simple faith in Jesus Christ who died for our sins you will be forgiven and people will be saved form Hell, right?

          13. No, I don’t think they do believe (only) that. After all, if faith does not affect one’s behaviour, then is it real? In any case, it is ultimately divine grace that saves us, isn’t it? Neither believing XYZ nor doing ABC can ‘qualify’ someone for salvation, which is a gift, not a reward.

            People like the (false) certainty of ‘knowing’ that, ‘if they do this, then the other thing will happen’. Consequently, people spend lots of time thrashing around trying to work out ‘how one is saved’. But maybe this way of thinking is actually a dangerous trap: if our concern is for others and their wellbeing, salvation will find us and tap us on the shoulder?!

          14. Of course, faith affects how people behave, but my point was that you don’t need to behave or do something in order to receive salvation. You just believe, or have faith that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins.

          15. Maybe take another look at Matthew 25, the Letter of Saint James and the also those of Saint John?

          16. In these writings, Jesus and James talk about good works being necessities to demonstrate the goodness of Christian faith, ie without good works faith becomes meaningless. However, the issue of salvation is totally different: good works are not needed for people to be saved from condemnation, all needs to be done is to believe that God sent his son Jesus Christ to save the world from it. (John 3:16) Good works is a requirement for demonstration of faith, but not for receiving salvation.

          17. These things are all linked. We need to be careful not to presume that “receiving salvation” is a one-off done deal. We have to work out our salvation.

          18. I believe that both salvation and living out the Christian faith is a lot of work. It all about God doing his good work through people who are faithful. The point is that he sent his Son Jesus Christ to save us not because he presumes that we did some good work or that he wants us to do something good (He knows we have failed and always will fail at this) but simply because he loves us. At the end of the day, no matter how we try to do good, we will never 100% satisfy God because we are sinful, but it’s our faith that he will forgives us anyway, is what keeps us going.

          19. That’s better, Sam …

            Perhaps my only reservation with what you have said here is that, our sinful nature notwithstanding, we should be growing in love and good works if we are truly going to work out our salvation. Simply believing that “[God] will forgive us anyway” is not enough.

            I would also point out that it appears that God is also “doing his good work” (of feeding the hungry etc) through people outside the Church.

          20. I’d like to add that God will forgive us anyway, if we acknowledge what we have missed or done poorly on our part and try to do better. The point is that no matter how many good works we do, they are pointless in terms of pleasing God, but the faith in him that he will guide us in the righteous path, even if we fail doing good all the time, is what really matters.

          21. Good works DO please God very much, I think, but I agree that we cannot ‘earn’ salvation simply by doing them.

            Truly good and loving acts are done without regard to rewards, don’t you think?

          22. Actually, not respect in my view. Protecting religious freedom is about protecting rights, and therefore the formulation and application of law. I do not have respect for the view that only ‘members of the club’ are saved. I believe it is nonsense, and am happy to shout the same from the rooftops!

        2. Christians should expect persecution. Jesus made that very clear. But that does not make persecuting people right, of course.

          No. What I said was that saying that people worshipped different gods implies the existence of more than one god.

  3. As far as I remember, Vought interpreted that Hawkins was wrong in saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but she resigned on her own. I find it highly unlikely that there is a threat for Christian dominionists to take over of American government and country. But, based on recent behavior of Sanders, among other things, I am seeing another evidence of the Radical Left oppressing Bible-based Christians.

    1. Hawkins was sent on enforced leave because of something she posted on social media, I believe.

      1. She did not just posted the things quoted above on social media but she also gave interview to the public press wearing hijab. The point is that Vought, speaking on Wheaton’s behalf,had a right to defend the college’s theological position and ensure that its employees adhere to it. So, in that regard, he did not disrespect Hawkins and that did not justify for Sanders, acting in a capacity as a publicly elected official, to disrespect Vought and all American Bible-based Christians. Because of this apparent disrespect, we have people like James Dobson, Ralph Drollinger, Scott Lively, and Tony Perkins loudly talking.

        1. I suspect that the four characters you mention in your last sentence are inclined towards “loudly talking” under all and any circumstances!

      2. She did not just posted the things quoted above on social media but she also gave interview to the public press wearing hijab. The point is that Vought, speaking on Wheaton’s behalf,had a right to defend the college’s theological position and ensure that its employees adhere to it. So, in that regard, he did not disrespect Hawkins and that did not justify for Sanders, acting in a capacity as a publicly elected official, to disrespect Vought and all American Bible-based Christians. Because of this apparent disrespect, we have people like James Dobson, Ralph Drollinger, Scott Lively, and Tony Perkins loudly talking.

  4. I knew you must have written about this, Warren. Just told Sam.

    Another question I might have wanted asked is about Vought’s perspective on the firing by Wheaton College of Hawkins.

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