A faith which still celebrates its lonely, martyred forebears two thousand years later is fertile soil for persecution complexes, and they have indeed developed. But a persecution complex is a little difficult to sustain legitimately among what has been, for centuries, a dominant majority in society. Christians in the United States are not under siege. They do keep acting like it, though.
Bernie Sanders, who is not a Christian, questioned a Trump administration nominee, Russ Vought, who is a Christian, about something Vought wrote in defense of his Christian alma mater, Wheaton College, during a controversy over the firing of a teacher with an inclusive theological view of Islam. The excerpt quoted by Sanders read: “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.” Vought could have said he didn’t write this, or that he didn’t mean it. He could have said it was taken out of context. He said none of those things. Rather, he defended it. His defense is that other Christians, and specifically those at Wheaton, believe it.
In context, “deficient” theology could be taken as a matter of arcana; the example of deficient theology from a preceding quote was “non-trinitarian,” and those with a deficient theology could simply be those who misunderstand something or other about God. But there is no such mitigation for “condemned.” It means “damned.” It means that Vought and any other Christians he speaks for believe that Muslims are going to Hell. Hell is by definition an afterlife of unimaginable suffering that lasts for eternity. Whether this comes about through physical torture or the question-begging alienation from God, it is still taken to be suffering — and Vought thinks Muslims deserve it. Earlier in his piece, Vought refers to humans in general as deserving “divine retribution,” which Jesus spares us from by taking our place. It’s easy enough to conclude that those who do not accept Jesus’s sacrifice still deserve divine retribution. They are sent to Hell by a god who knows everything, can do anything, and is goodness and justice in all things. If Muslims did not deserve eternal suffering, a righteous god would not make them endure it.
Sanders thinks Vought’s assertion is evidence of discriminatory belief, which is a reasonable guide to future discriminatory practice, which is not something we can allow in our government officials. And it is evidence; it is not by itself proof, but it is useful evidence, and as a senator asked for his advice and consent, Sanders is right to probe the meaning of that evidence, and can decide for himself how to weigh it against other evidence. For example, under questioning, Vought asserted that he would not discriminate: “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.” That is, however, difficult to square logically with his support for the condemnation of nonbelievers. That is not how he thinks God treats the nonbelievers.
In response to Sanders’ questions, conservative David French invokes the religious-test clause of the US Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” But we are capable and indeed have a long tradition of distinguishing between, on the one hand, membership in a religion or identity as a believer, and on the other, specific beliefs — between affiliation and doctrine. And religions are not monolithic; there is no definitive corpus of belief. Religions come in many different variations, perhaps as many as there are believers. Are all variations equally beyond question?
Many religions have, in some variation or other, discriminatory beliefs about women. Some approve of slavery. These variations can often be supported by textual evidence from scriptures that are commonly accepted throughout the religion. If you call yourself a Christian or a Muslim, you’re likely to endorse the Bible or the Qur’an as a sacred text, indeed as the foundation of your religion. If a person, citing the Bible or the Qur’an, admits to believing in slavery or the inherent subordination of women and calls that belief “Christianity” or “Islam,” we can’t very well disagree, since the textual evidence makes this interpretation valid. And yet most of us reject slavery and the inherent subordination of women. Can we not also reject those who believe it? Is this religious discrimination?
French is no fan of cultural relativism, including as applied to Muslim societies; but he is demanding that it be applied to Christianity in a Christian society. He is not defending the specific belief that Muslims (and other nonbelievers) are going to Hell. He is insisting that we are not allowed to ask about it.
Other conservatives share French’s objections; and Daniel Davis, for one, even does so while admitting the true nature of Vought’s statement — that Muslims are going to Hell. But the objections do not come from conservatives alone. Atlantic contributor and Obama alumnus Andrew Exum, who frequently discusses his own Christianity, calls Sanders’ questioning “disappointing, ugly stuff,” equates Vought’s statement to the simple belief that Christianity is the only true religion, and then claims that Sanders’ standard would rule out an endorsement of the Apostles’ Creed. But the Creed contains no mention of damnation; and there’s a big difference between saying “only Christians truly understand God” and “Muslims deserve to spend eternity in unimaginable suffering.” Exum’s colleague at the Atlantic, Emma Green, criticizes Sanders as well: questioning Vought’s beliefs was out-of-bounds, because the beliefs are “theological” — as though this were an abstract discussion on the nature of God. New York magazine writer and Democrat Ed Kilgore takes the same view, considering Sanders’ questions as the imposition of a religious test, and unacceptable. Even atheist activist Hemant Mehta, who also bluntly admits the damnation present in Vought’s statement, nonetheless thinks Sanders was wrong to use this issue against Vought, in part on the grounds that so many other Christians believe the same thing.
Such thinking leaves us in only one place: any belief is acceptable, as long as it is “religious.” We are, of course, used to Christians in the US taking refuge in their faith as a license to discriminate — Kim Davis, for instance, or Roy Moore. But they seldom express it in relativist terms, aware, perhaps, that relativism would then apply to non-Christian beliefs as well.
The truth is that moral relativism is an empty ideology. Its purported morality is that there is no real morality; anything anyone claims is morally acceptable, provided that it is sincerely held. Very, very few people actually believe this. Very few people, if truly pressed, would claim there is not even one example of absolute morality. Is it moral to murder a genuine relativist? Totally moral, as long as you believe in it sincerely.
Perhaps Vought is not like Davis and Moore; but does it have to be stated that a large absolute number of Christians in the United States are intolerant of Islam and believe that its adherents deserve discrimination, or that Donald Trump has built important government policy around this belief, or that he would happily appoint such a Christian to any post?
In 1989, the theocratic ruler of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa (ruling) calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam. Imagine the questioning if a Voughtesque Muslim had written in support of that fatwa.
“Do you in fact believe that Salman Rushdie deserves to die for blasphemy against Islam?”
“I have nothing but love in my heart for Salman Rushdie. He does, however, deserve to die.”
“And you don’t think that’s inconsistent with the idea of having nothing but love in your heart for him?”
“No, I merely hold the same position as the Muslims of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Vought is nominated as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget; Davis, Mehta, and Green seem to think this makes Sanders’ question irrelevant, and thus even more inappropriate. But to think that an OMB deputy director has no role in potential discrimination is to misunderstand the agency. Vought won’t be doing data entry on a spreadsheet. The president’s budget is a blueprint for the entire administration and its priorities — what is worth spending on, which programs deserve to grow and which to be downsized or eliminated. The director, Mick Mulvaney, is clearly an important ideologue in the Trump administration. Whatever influence Vought, as Mulvaney’s deputy, may or may not have over the budget, the budget is supposed to have a big influence over policy.
And would it still be off-limits if Vought’s beliefs were more obviously relevant, as if he were nominated for a civil rights post? Could Sanders ask a nominee who would oversee scientific research if she believes in evolution, or ask how old the Earth is? Could Sanders question the faith healing beliefs of a surgeon general nominee, or take issue with the anti-abortion views of a Health and Human Services nominee? Every such person would have just as much right to point to religion as the origin of the belief. Are these all to be dismissed as unconstitutional “religious tests”?
Ultimately French and the others are making a moral argument; but since there is a legal argument to be addressed as well, let the courts have their say. Sanders and other senators so inclined should keep asking such questions until the Supreme Court rules definitively that they can’t. Perhaps while the legal case is underway, we can discuss the various ways, subtle and not subtle, that the religious majority excludes religious minorities like Muslims, Bernie Sanders, and me from politics and indeed from office.
Russ Vought can believe whatever he wants. But belief, however it is labelled, is a valid matter of inquiry for a potential government official. As a nonbeliever, I am not concerned with the prospect of eternal suffering. I am, however, highly concerned with the prospect of government power in the hands of someone who believes I deserve eternal suffering.