Bernie Sanders doesn’t care what you believe about hell. He does care if your beliefs demonize other people.
This is the context in which Christian conservatives fell back to seeing persecutions everywhere. Often looking for persecutions precisely when asked to recognize their bias.
At a recent confirmation hearing for Russell Vought who was nominated to become deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Senator Bernie Sanders invited a line of questioning which got all sorts of people bent out of shape. Not just the predictable ones, but even respectable ones.
They argued that Sanders brought up religion and attacked the man for his Christianity. The outrage sprung from a particular line of questioning.
Sanders asked Vought about a January 2016 blog post he wrote defending Wheaton College’s firing of one of its professors:
“Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned. ”
This is no simple post, of course. Or a mere difference of opinion. This was written to defend the firing of a professor over her beliefs. And the enforcement of a particular creed. A firing which itself stretches the bounds of what is sacred and what is secular.
Nor is it as innocent or universally understood as many people of faith take it. Claiming Islam is deficient and it’s people “condemned” isn’t merely religious or a statement of faith. It is a highly divisive theological position upon which Christians do not agree. And an attack on persons the federal government is sworn to protect.
This isn’t Left/Right politics as usual.
It’s alarming and destructive, both politically and theologically.
Sanders was hung up on the word condemn for a reason. Because Christians don’t all believe non-Christians are condemned. It isn’t a universal belief or one that has been held from the beginning. It is offensive to claim it is.
Our collective failure in recognizing the richness of the debate is a failure of imagination and will. And it stems from an ignorance of the scripture and the interpretive strategies we employ when reading the Bible. Particularly the bits from which these arguments are made.
In the same section of that same gospel from which “Jesus is the way” is taken, Jesus talks about having sheep who aren’t of the fold. He talks about a narrow gate and about leaving the gate wide open to let anyone go through.
Jesus speaks of natural paradoxes in the gospel of John which sound both exclusive and inclusive. Which say few and many. Or argue that there are barriers for entry, but anyone can get in regardless. And it is our theological arguments and presenting theory, what we call a hermeneutic, which determines how we read these texts and build our faith.
So this was no innocent blog post defending a Christian’s right to a personal faith about a Christian principle we all share. It was politically divisive and representative of thinking which has shown incredible bias and dangerous discrimination in the past. And was in the midst of discriminating against a woman in its present.
Politics and Religion
Some took issue with Sanders bringing up religious beliefs in the midst of the hearing at all. They argue that not only do such questions not belong there, but they are being used as a litmus test for suitability for office. These, of course are boilerplate persecution complex for Christian conservatives and secularists alike. And they ignore the fact that this is a job interview for a position which requires respect for all people.
Sanders didn’t so much bring up sincerely held beliefs foundational to a man’s soul. He asked about a public statement which sounded an awful lot like Vought might struggle with impartiality. This supposedly persecuted man acted, calling people of another tradition condemned. Then hid behind his faith.
Since then he was given cover for this by many people of faith; as if his decisions are isolated from beliefs. Like a right to refuse a cake isn’t also depriving a person of a celebratory treat or the right to refuse a surgery isn’t also depriving a person of a life-saving procedure.
What many of my fellow Christians are struggling with is that these very things go hand-in-hand. We can’t isolate them and give priority to one over the other. Not without undermining our entire argument.
You can’t claim its about protecting faith when its attacking another’s. Or claim your faith is off limits if it leads you to be unfit for your job. We can’t prioritize Christian faith over other faiths and claim impartiality. Religious freedom has to protect minorities from the majority. Otherwise it isn’t religious freedom. And then it isn’t a belief locked inside our skulls.
Faith is never only what happens inside our bodies. It influences what we do.
Not about hell or the candidate’s faith
Defenders of Vought have argued with Sanders’ question by saying it’s about the man’s personal faith and not his actions or his record. But that is precisely what Sanders is asking about. Not his faith as a personal thing, but his public actions and whether or not he can be trusted to be impartial.
This is why Sanders dug into the word condemned.
Christians don’t think all Muslims are condemned. Certain conservative Christians most clearly do. And this condemnation is held in the rarified air of the intellectual and theoretical — as if this isn’t a nasty thing to say or theologically troubling. As if condemnation is set outside the realm of human laws and the world and our belief in that certainty is nothing more than acknowledging truth. Like seeing that water is wet or grass is green for about a month in the spring.
Does speaking of God’s condemnation have a purpose?
When we use this word, condemn, what are we really saying?
If condemnation has any meaning at all, it means we discriminate, refuse to tolerate, and ultimately shun those who are different because the condemnation has a tangible effect. It means God has already acted. So we must do likewise. That’s one way.
But if it is for God to decide and judge humanity, then there is literally no point to defending a college’s faith statement or uttering such a word in public. If it is only a theory, and has no effect whatsoever on how we treat one another, how we love each other as Jesus commanded, then the word has no value or meaning to the Christian community.
If humanity has no part to play in condemnation (and therefore do not ourselves condemn at all) then there is literally no value to believing others are condemned.
And even less value in stating such a belief. Or defending those who acted upon that belief.
Theology is ultimately judged, not by intellectual exercises alone, but what it does to our faith itself. So a theology of God’s condemning of non-Christians leads to a faith of condemnation and a life of division and exclusion.
The arguments Vought’s defenders have made treat condemnation as something completely irrelevant and outside our space on the one hand. Or on the other, an impetus to share in that condemnation here and now. To attack Muslims or block them at the borders. For their faith.
But it isn’t about their faith. It’s about Vought’s and only Vought’s apparently. About his rights and not the rights of religious minorities. Like the right to persecute, which ostensibly grants the right for conservative Christians to persecute and discriminate based on their faith. And without regard to the other person’s faith.
To claim a whole group of people condemned based on their religious beliefs because your religious beliefs permit you to is not innocent. Dare we call it sin?
It’s about action
Talking heads can rail all they want, trying to convince good Christians that Sanders crossed the line, making a litmus test for Christians, because that’s their right. But they aren’t being appointed deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
But for people of faith who don’t see Starbucks cups as tools of persecution and recognize that conversion therapy is abuse, the course of this debate is pretty clear.
Is it about faith? Sort of. But it’s also about action. Because the two are intertwined and inseparable. And Sanders was trying to protect the people of the many faiths in this country who might face persecution because of this man’s actions.
For Vought and any other Christian put in this position, the most dangerous action wasn’t the words he wrote over a year ago on a blog or what he might do when given authority. It was how he responded to the question.
He couldn’t see the problem.
The Problem itself
He couldn’t hear Sanders’ concern for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, hell…mainline, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians! (That’s a whole other area of the “elect” and exclusivity debate)
Or recognize that the words he takes as theological doctrine and separate from his action can be anything but.
He couldn’t see how calling a people condemned is itself a problem!!!
This is not simply a statement of faith. It’s also a derision of a minority group. Another religious group who need the protection religious freedom advocates claim they’re fighting on behalf of all persons of faith for.
And if a dude thinks muslims are condemned (to the fiery pit of hell, we suppose?) how can we not ask him to prove his impartiality?
As citizens. Christians. People of faith.
It’s like conservative Christianity is administering a litmus test to see what they can get away with saying and doing in the public square. A test of how much personal religion they can get us to excuse, how much persecution they can get away with, and how much destruction of the common good can be chalked up to belief in a generous God.
This has nothing to do with hell and your right to believe in it and you know it.