Read this David French write-up of an appalling episode today between senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought (seeking to be confirmed as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget). Sanders’ grilling of Vought’s theology is distasteful, yes, but it is also borderline unconstitutional, since the clear implication of Sanders’ conclusion is that Vought’s religious views disqualify him from the office.

So what gives? I can think of 3 possibilities as to why Senator Sanders would do this:

  1. The senator genuinely doesn’t know or understand that Christians believe that those who aren’t Christians are, at least in some meaningful sense, “condemned” because they lack faith in Jesus Christ. It could be that senator Sanders honestly has no idea this theology even exists, and assumed that Vought’s sentiments were extreme, fringe, and bigoted.
  2. Senator Sanders does understand what Vought means, but he believes this theology is genuinely dangerous to pluralism and tolerance, and that those who believe in it are, by extension, threats to the social order.
  3. Senator Sanders understands the theology, and doesn’t really see such religious belief as inherently dangerous to the public. He does, however, believe that secularism, not religion, is the “fair” and “neutral” position, and that it’s best for everybody if those with political power do not take their religious beliefs with them into the public square. Laying personal theology aside is, Sanders reasons, the cost of citizenship.

Looking over those possibilities, I think:

  • If scenario #1 is true, then that means the Democratic party nearly nominated a man for the presidency who doesn’t understand the most basic meaning of the country’s majority religion–and, perhaps even worse, despite years in public service, he has never bothered to figure it out.
  • If scenario #2 is the case, then we have to admit that a senior senator in the US’s most important legislative body, and a presidential contender with a national political party, sincerely believes that orthodox religion is incompatible with American democracy, and certainly incompatible with leadership of said democracy.
  • If scenario #3 is true, then the implication is that senator Sanders, and perhaps some of his colleagues, believe that secularism is an appropriate, and the only appropriate, public religion.

I’m not sure which scenario I believe. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter which one is true, because in the end, they all mean the same thing. They all mean that a candidate for public office was openly asked to relinquish the unanimous teaching of his 2,000-year old faith in order to serve the American republic. They all mean that an elected official ridiculed and questioned the patriotism of orthodox Christian teaching, and did so likely knowing he could count on impunity from his colleagues and his constituency. They all mean the pitting of basic religious conviction against citizenship.

Look, I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m not trying to scream persecution, and I’m not even trying to score a partisan point. But this episode matters, and it matters not only because of where and how it happened, but also because there are sizable numbers of people who insist day by day that this kind of ideological pressure cooking just isn’t happening. “That’s just silly,” they say, when presented with new evidence of focused attacks on religious liberty. “Christianity is a majority religion. You have privilege on top of privilege. You’re just mad you have to share with somebody else now.”

Sorry, but when nuns are sued to sell contraceptives, and when nominees for public office are interrogated in confirmation hearings about whether they actually believe in their religion–that’s not just “sharing” privilege.

One more thing. I happen to know quite a few friends and peers who are both Christian and fans/supporters of Bernie Sanders. Here’s my challenge to you: Say something about this. Don’t let it fly just because you like the idea of free community college, or because you’ve seen through the whole “GOP=Christianity” facade. Capitalism is not orthodoxy. I get it. But if your partiality for economic redistribution means you’re OK with religious tests being applied for public officials who have the misfortune of their convictions, you’ve simply repeated the mistake of your Moral Majority ancestors, only on behalf of a different tribe.

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Posted by Samuel James

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books.