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?