Are Evangelicals Unfit for Office?

Remember Larycia Hawkins? Senator Bernie Sanders does. In a recent hearing, Bernie suggested that a Wheaton College grad was unfit for office since he publicly supported his alma mater in its fight against Professor Hawkins.

During the recent presidential campaign, Candidate Sanders sounded friendlier to evangelical Protestants. He even ventured into the fundamentalist lion’s den, making a speech at Liberty University.

Down in Virginia, Bernie didn’t make a secret of his disagreement with conservative evangelical politics. But he did say some friendly things about Liberty, such as the following:

You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings, and I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.

This week, Bernie wasn’t applauding. He suggested that any earnest evangelical was unfit for public office.

Before we get to his ferocious criticism of evangelicalism, let me say a few words of clarification: I like Bernie. I’m no evangelical myself. I’m just a mild-mannered historian who has written a book about the history of schools such as Wheaton and Liberty.

And maybe I’ve spent too much time in the archives of evangelical institutions, but Bernie’s recent accusation seemed pretty surprising to my ears. I’m at a loss to know how we should understand this situation.

Here’s what we know: according to Christianity Today, Senator Sanders was questioning Russell Vought in his hearing for his appointment in the Office of Management and Budget.

Vought is a Wheaton alum and had defended the school’s decision to initiate termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins had sparked controversy by wearing hijab and asserting that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the “same God.”

Vought disagreed. He applauded Wheaton’s firm stance. Only evangelical Christians, Vought wrote, can truly be saved. Only through the redemptive power of Jesus’s sacrifice can people come to God. As Vought put it bluntly,

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.

Bernie didn’t like it. He challenged Vought:

Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too? I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have 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?

It’s a pickle. For secular folks like me (and Bernie), Vought’s language seems pretty harsh. Is sounds as if he is damning to hell everyone who doesn’t agree with him. And, in a way, he is. But Vought’s belief is nothing radical. In fact, however, it is one of the central tenets of evangelical belief. The National Association of Evangelicals recently offered a four-point statement of basic evangelical belief:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Some evangelical pundits were quick to lambaste Bernie. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention called Bernie “breathtakingly audacious and shockingly ignorant.” Senator Sanders, Moore charged, was trying to impose an utterly unconstitutional religious test for office.

I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, I agree with Bernie. Vought seemed to make his point in a particularly offensive way, using language calculated to seem harsh and intolerant. I don’t want public officials who see non-evangelicals as somehow inferior. And there are plenty of evangelicals who agree with me. Even at Wheaton, after all, plenty of earnest evangelicals decried the school’s decision to oust Professor Hawkins.

On the other hand, Vought’s statement was nothing but basic evangelical belief. Perhaps Vought said it more loudly than people like me find polite. But Vought and anyone else is perfectly free to think the rest of us are condemned. As a religious belief, that doesn’t do me any harm. In fact, however, I am no more offended by Vought’s belief that I am condemned than I am by scientologists’ notions that I am not “clear.”

What do you think? Is Bernie right to raise the red flag? Or should Vought and his comrades be free to voice their religious beliefs loudly and proudly?

Leave a comment


  1. David Long

     /  June 11, 2017

    Adam, glad you’re doing this blog again.

    “I don’t want public officials who see non-evangelicals as somehow inferior. And there are plenty of evangelicals who agree with me. Even at Wheaton, after all, plenty of earnest evangelicals decried the school’s decision to oust Professor Hawkins.”

    There seems to be at least two distinct issues for which we should care. Are there–in fact– ‘plenty’ of evangelicals? Differences in nominal identity versus functional identity matter here. Many identify as evangelical who also practice a form of ecumenicism in the public square. For elite Evangelicals like Vought, ecumenical Evangelicals–if you pressed him–likely don’t count. They’re not true Evangelicals. Think about what Vought’s thoughts likely would be on NIH head Francis Collins. He’d also likely rule him out.

    “On the other hand, Vought’s statement was nothing but basic evangelical belief. Perhaps Vought said it more loudly than people like me find polite. But Vought and anyone else is perfectly free to think the rest of us are condemned. As a religious belief, that doesn’t do me any harm.”

    Basic Evangelical belief then is always a potential risk in a pluralist society. It seems tepid enough when reigned in by polite society. But demographic reality shows that when Evangelicals get a critical mass of power, they simply do not respect the state’s commitment to a secular position. That’s a liberal’s hope for a decent society that falls apart quickly in political practice. Religious beliefs get mobilized as political action. Have you ever been to an abortion clinic entrance in a red state? Evangelicalism, in the Vought view, if we want to be blunt about it, requires categorical deficiency views of all non-Evangelicals. Cognitive totalitarianism.

    So yes, red flags should be raised and religious practice should be permitted via constitutional right. But the kind of politeness you describe won’t hold the worst tendencies of Evangelical overreach at bay. Secular society doesn’t require us to like bad ideas. They should be pointed out, ridiculed when appropriate, and then let to hopefully die away as illiberal practice.

  2. As far as I can tell, there is no religious test for public office. I love Bernie, but he should have asked how Vought’s personal views might translate into policy. I want more atheists in office. We cannot make progress if a religious test is applied. How many evangelicals would vote for atheists? Surely they would try to apply a religious test, inferring that non-theists are unfit to serve. I would not try to deny Vought based on his private religious views; I would stand up against policies that are based on his religious views.

    • That might sound good in the abstract, but it’s suicidal in practice. If you know someone if going to introduce white Christian supremacist policies you had better keep them out of office any way you can. Coming up with a reason that is not based in “his private religious views” might be expedient, but do realize this is all bad faith argumentation on the fundamentalist side. They have preached for decades that there are no “private religious views,” and all views worth anything are commitments to values that are essentially religious. They see secularism as a non-neutral rival religious allied with every other -ism they dislike, which these days is Islamism, “transgenderism,” and “homosexualism.” They think these are the proverbial snakes held to America’s breast, and their opponents will conclude the same about them.

      • I know the dangers of such views. I used to hold them. We must attack on policy, however, because the Constitution is explicit. That knife cuts both ways, unfortunately. We are in a sorry state of affairs. Thanks for your reply. I believe this discussion is vital.

  3. Adam, thanks for your post. It was after attending an evangelical seminary that I began to realize there was a lot of evangelical theology that I just couldn’t hold onto. Evangelicalism inherently supports the idea that there is only one way for redemption/eternal salvation. I think it is this “my way or the highway” type of theology that many people outside of evangelical circles may not don’t realize and struggle to support.

    If we truly support the idea of freedom of religion, I think it is an error on Bernie’s part to say that holding an evangelical theology disqualifies you for office. I am a fan or Bernie, but I think this was an error on his part. I think his reasoning here could be equally applied to other religious beliefs. What if I disagree with an atheist? Should I believe they are unfit for office?

    Thanks for your thought provoking post. I would be interested in reading your book. Where would I find a copy?

    • Thanks for the comment, Cody. And double thanks for asking about the book. It is not out yet–scheduled for release January 1, 2018.

    • Bernie never said anyone was disqualified; he simply exposed the problem these beliefs pose for pluralism. When Al Franken did that with Betsy DeVos’s Dominionist views, the reaction was less intense — reformed and evangelical people and institutions held her at arm’s length, suggested she wasn’t quite one of them, that her views are not representative, and they don’t really intend anything as bad as they sound. The rush to defend Vought was much more defensive and unified — he’s a product of a system people pay a great deal for in tuition. They have his back. And maybe now there is a sense that Trump is here to stay, and assertive, militant positions are safe. In the long run, this is shrinking and radicalizing their base. It’s a gamble on whether this will work as a growth and/or power retention strategy.

      Please note the context for the Vought hearing was a period of right wing “anti-Shariah” protests around the country by armed militias and other people who believe Muslims are trying to impose theocratic control of the United States by stealth.

      Evangelicals were quite please with “liberal” Catholic ecumenism that ceased to apply the idea of there being no salvation outside the church in an absolutist, political fashion:

  4. Adam, I think this is a really big deal — actually the big deal was Wheaton’s unopposed revision of established ecumenical theology — and you’re incorrect that “any earnest evangelical” believes everyone identifiable as a non-Christian (of some definition) is damned to a literal lake of fire or some such place of eternal torment. Again C. S. Lewis the appropriated Evangelical saint is a bad evangelical and a good Anglo-Catholic universalist.

    There is a lot of variation in evangelicalism, but Wheaton’s is not a good statement of the prevailing Protestant or Christian view considered historically over its full course. It’s entirely out of whack with pre-Reformation Christianity and Judaism. A lot of evangelicals do believe something like the position Wheaton has concocted, and as a group Evangelicals have been pressing and purging to enforce this as an essential orthodoxy more than ever because of their politicization. It is improvisational theology however, developed in unreflective reaction by college administrators tugged by donors holding the purse strings.

    David is correct, the Wheaton position is a set of category mistakes that are not benign or abstract; they were formed and are constantly used as weapons. This contrasts strongly with the way Catholics dealt with discrimination and quasi-religious tests for office. There is no Evangelical John Courtney Murray. Why not?

    Even a Calvinist version of Evangelicalism that says there is neither the intention nor capacity in God’s grace to save all people should not be able to transfer a presumptive identification of “the damned” with apparent religious or non-religious others. Deriving from Augustine, the consistent application of this very narrow Reformed view of salvation is that even some apparent Christians, sincere and good in every visible way, may be selected for the hot place. I believe I’ve mentioned in the past how 17thC Calvinist theologians had a snakes and ladders type of flowchart illustrating this. Conversely, someone who looks every inch the reprobate to his dying day might be saved just to show God’s awesome power. (This is useful when you are concerned with scaring your own people into toeing the line.) “We know you are on Satan’s side” has never been an orthodox Christian position before. Why treat Wheaton as the Evangelical Vatican?

    The ecumenical work done to bridge divisions between Christians and especially Jews after the world wars has been torn up by this sort of random political theology of the fundamentalist culture warriors. It’s a big deal. You’d think some professionals would speak out. Maybe they have. Some academic theologians have complained Evangelicals have lost grip of basic “theology of God” fundamentals in recent years. Can there be other, false gods for other monotheists to worship, especially when they come from the same Abrahamic tradition wherein God introduces himself in Genesis as being prior to all religions? If “not knowing Christ” is the kicker, as Vought says, then Bernie is correct to ask about his view of Jewish people. Again, ecumenical and especially Catholic theology after the holocaust went through great effort to affirm Christian and Jewish beliefs in ways that did not have them excluding each other by consigning people to hell. (Benedict XVI was big on this.) It seems like the Catholic right is silent on it now.

    I’ll ask an old Calvin Sem. grad who knows this area to comment on it. This is my off the cuff reaction from following this kind of thing in the past and plenty of relevant graduate work in early modern history.

    • *Just a point of information: The four-point list of evangelical “essentials” wasn’t concocted by Wheaton, but by the National Association of Evangelicals with LifeWay Research.

      • In 2017. So the NAE would have released that AFTER Hawkins was fired. It is an after the fact move to shore up what Wheaton did.

        Are you implying that every time the NAE defines Evangelicalism, that becomes the legal basis for the scope of religious liberty? How consistently is that going to be applied to Evangelicals and other groups? What is the problem with religious polygamy? It really comes down to numbers and political clout. If Muslim groups did anything like this, there would be a huge negative reaction from the right, including Congress.

        The NAE+research consultants provide the pretense of a magisterial body that doesn’t really speak for anyone or have a real binding force until institutions act on them, and that action is what really directs the NAE. Colleges use narrowing positions to cull their herd. Evangelical committees codify theological statements. Journalists use them to say “Well that is what they believe, and we’ve got to respect religious liberty.” Politicians echo that. Violence toward religious out-groups who get no such respect increases. This is how you tear a country apart.

        Kind of like the initial Catholic reactions to the holocaust in the lat 1940s, the old money and power in Evangelicalism is trying to purify itself by narrowing the qualifications for who is in and who is out. But that all had to be walked back by the Catholic church, and it will have to be walked back by Evangelicals when isolation and militancy no longer seem like a good path to them. That’s if things go relatively well.

        Note too that Wheaton did more than apply this narrowing definition of “Evangelical” to a prospective hire as a routine matter of institutional processes. Many professors there evidently disagree with the now NAE codified definition of Evangelical and Hawkins was one of them. She alone got the axe because she achieved prominence for her public solidarity with Muslims. The religious test applied to her by her employer was concocted slowly and painfully later on in the dispute as a legalistic excuse to get rid of her. In typical inquisitorial fashion, they required her to explain her beliefs until she has said things they could reject on some theological basis. Which the NAE later ratified. Which is also blatantly antisemitic.

        I hope from now on scholars cease to quote Bebbington, Noll and Marsden on the definition of Protestant Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. It’s the NAE definition now, evidently.

      • *I thought that report said 2017 — actually it concluded virtually at the same time Prof. Hawkins put on a hijab at Wheaton. End of 2015. Same point though. Was she supposed to notice and understand the implications for her activism and statements? Do Christian college profs usually receive NAE reports as binding on their own beliefs?

        This report is not intended as anything more than a disclosure of survey research results stating what the self-identified evangelicals they surveyed say they believe. Do majority opinions of mostly lay self-identified evangelicals as polled by researchers define Evangelical orthodoxy such that it becomes a basis for religious liberty in the eyes of the state — what it has to tolerate from people in public office, and from religious institutions when they apply it as a legal discriminatiion against those whose evangelical views differ from the latest poll?

        “We’re not saying these are the only evangelicals, but we are saying this will define someone as having evangelical belief,” said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research.

        Americans with a high school education or less are most likely to hold evangelical beliefs. Forty percent of those with no more than a high school education strongly agree with all four statements, compared to 26 percent of those with some college, 22 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees, and 18 percent of those with graduate degrees.

  5. Melissa Kollar

     /  June 21, 2017

    Bernie was right. The issue isn’t what he believes in his religion but rather he supports suspending someone for their religious beliefs. That is discrimination. And what Bernie Sanders is saying is if you support discrimination by suspending this teacher for having her religious views you should not be in office. People can have different points of views about taxes and health-care but you cannot have a point of view that goes against the Supreme Court’s decision that you cannot discriminate against the person for their religion. His Christian beliefs are not the issue it’s the fact that he discriminated against somebody on religious grounds that’s in direct violation of our laws.

    • With respect, I think you might be missing the point on this one. No one–not even Bernie–disputes Wheaton College’s right to hire or fire professors based on their political or theological views. As a private college with a clearly defined contractual insistence on certain beliefs, Wheaton or any private institution has every right to hire and fire based on theological differences. The issue in this case is different: whether or not those beliefs make some conservative evangelicals unfit for public office. Any American has the right to believe that I will go to hell if I don’t establish a saving relationship with Jesus. But does that belief mean that someone is inherently unfit to serve as a public official?

      • Dan

         /  June 22, 2017

        I would have liked to see Bernie’s reaction if Vought told him he hoped Bernie would be among the remnant of 144,000 ethnic Jews who join with Jesus in the End Times for a final battle with Satan’s armies in Israel. Would such a person be good to have in the state department, do you think? That’s a common Evangelical belief that many Evangelical leaders would denounce, but who is to say what Evangelical orthodoxy is if the NAE has reduced it to survey results?

        Yes Vought’s beliefs do make Evangelicals unfit for public office if they strongly correlate “the damned” with people who hold a “non-” or “anti-Christian worldview.” What Calvinist presuppositionalism did to Evangelicalism in the last century is make ideology an essential category, like race, which reflects an inner, ontological status. The problem is not that they think you are going to hell; it is that they think you are going to hell because you are a liberal proponent of atheistic ideologies: secularism, liberalism, marxism, and so on. They think everything you think and do is not only inferior but antithetical to the God-intended order of nature and society. You are a rebel and an enemy working to undermine and destroy all that is holy and good.

        Evangelicals differ in how zealously they believe and assert this. They’re unlikely to take a hardline on it in public, if they want to advance themselves. A few know how to make this sound fairly moderate and even liberal-ish by reference to such things as “common grace,” which allows even hellbound you to get your socks on and do basic math each day. We should be very concerned that more people with these beliefs are in office now than ever before.

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