Recently, I was reading an article online about a conversation that occurred during the 2017 U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for Russ Vought, the nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. There were a couple of political opinion pieces about this exchange, including one by Daniel Davis, "Bernie Sanders Shows the Left’s Refusal to Coexist With Traditional Believers" and another by David French of National Review, "Watch Bernie Sanders Attack a Christian Nominee and Impose an Unconstitutional Religious Test for Public Office".
The original exchange is posted on YouTube as well.
These articles are interesting, but rather than commenting on the political ramifications of a U.S. Senator questioning the religious beliefs of a nominee for the role of Deputy Director for the Office of Management and Budget, instead, I want to discuss how I think Mr. Vought might have better answered Senator Sander's questions.
I encourage you to watch this exchange on YouTube, but here is the transcript as compiled by David French:
Sanders: You wrote, “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.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?
Vought: Absolutely not, senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and—
Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?
Vought: Again, senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College.
Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?
Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian—
Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country are made of people who are not just—I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but 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: Thank you for probing on that question. 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. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals—
Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?
Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.
Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.
When I watched this exchange, I cringed. First, because Sanders clearly doesn't understand Christianity and Christian teachings (but as a Jew I don't expect him to). Second, because Sanders seems to be applying a "religious test" to a nominee who is seeking confirmation for a very secular position (Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget). But third, I cringed because I think Mr. Vought made two critical mis-steps at the outset of the questioning. Vought failed to clarify terms, and he failed to properly articulate who is making claims about Christian teachings.
The first question that Senator Sanders asked was, "Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?" Vought fell into the trap! He assumed he knew what Sanders meant by "Islamophobic" and tried to answer the question. The better, more tactical approach would have been to ask Sanders, "What do you mean by Islamophobic?"
You see, many who are hostile to Christianity will often resort to name-calling like "bigot", "homophobic" or "Islamophobic" to try and suggest that Christians are wrong in their beliefs by simply calling us names. Sanders clearly doesn't subscribe to Christian beliefs. But instead of trying to answer this question, Vought should have sought clarification on the term "Islamophobic".
Strictly speaking, a "phobia" is an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. So to ask if someone is (in this case Vought statement) Islamophobic implies that he has an irrational fear of Islam or Muslims. Thus accusing someone of "Islamophobia" is really to imply they have a mental illness, not a policial or religious belief with which one disagrees. So, Vought really could have turned the tables on Sanders by asking, "Senator, can you please tell me what you mean by Islamophobic?" or alternatively, "Senator, can you please tell me what you believe is Islamophobic about that statement?" Either of these questions would have either exposed the faulty thinking or (more likely) the name-calling that Sanders was engaged in. But more importantly, it would have forced Sanders to clarify his terms and the use of Islamophobic. I can only wonder what he really means by this.
Second, Vought made the mistake of not putting Jesus in the hot seat. This would have clarified who was actually making the claims about Christian teachings. What I mean here is, when someone challenges or finds fault with a teaching of Christianity, we as Christians shouldn't try and defend our own thoughts or beliefs of said teaching or doctrine. Instead, we should simply point out that Jesus was the one who taught that particular thing. Vought could have responded to Sanders' questioning of his statement by saying, "Senator, this view is not actually my own. Instead, I am simply stating what Jesus of Nazareth himself clearly taught: that all of us are condemned to be eternally separated from God when we die unless we put our trust in the saving work of Jesus through his death on the cross. This is clearly taught in the New Testament. This isn't my view, but is actually the view of Jesus of Nazareth." (And by the way, Jesus claimed to be God.)
Personally, I would love to see what Senator Bernie Sanders would have said to that statement.