The boundary between religion and government can sometimes be hard to draw. At a recent congressional hearing, however, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont got it exactly wrong.
On June 7, in questioning Russell Vought in regard to his nomination to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sanders referred to an article that Vought had written a year ago. In that article, Vought stated that Christ was the only path to salvation and that, therefore, Muslims and practitioners of other faiths stood condemned.
This is a view held by millions of Christians, perhaps the vast majority of practicing Christians today. It was certainly the view held by virtually every practicing Christian at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. And a somewhat parallel view – that a belief in Allah, as described in the Koran, is the only path to salvation – is held by the majority of practicing Muslims today.
There is absolutely nothing inconsistent between holding these views and serving as a U.S. government official. Neither inner religious belief nor the expression of religious belief is the proper province of government.
Where religious beliefs do become the province of legitimate government concern and regulation is when they are acted upon to the detriment of others.
If Vought believed that in his capacity as a government official he could treat Muslims or members of any other faith differently from Christians, this would be inconsistent with the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
But Vought made no such claim. To the contrary, he said that he believed that all people were created in the image of God and deserved respect.
It would be one thing if Vought were to treat individuals differently because of their religious faith – including by certain kinds of speech he might utter in his capacity as a government official.
But the expression of religious views by a private person, which Vought was at the time he wrote his article defending Christianity, cannot be held against his suitability to serve in the federal government.
Indeed, in criticizing Vought, Sanders himself crossed the line respecting the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion. Are we to believe that only individuals whose religious views Sanders approves of are fit to serve in the federal government?
The Constitution makes only one reference to religion in its original pre-Bill of Rights text. Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In condemning Vought’s views and suggesting that he is not fit to serve in the federal government, Sanders has set up precisely such a test.
Must nominees adopt Sanders’ preferred interpretation of the tenets of Christianity? Is a doctrine that Christ is the only path to salvation in and of itself “Islamophobia”? Must nominees for federal office subscribe to only those forms of religious expression Sanders supports?
Sanders is free to vote against Vought’s nomination, which he announced he would do. But he would do well to think more carefully about the meaning of the free exercise of religion, about the proper relation of faith and government, and about his own sworn constitutional obligations.
Jeff Bergner served in the legislative and executive branches of government.