Senator Sanders Unrelenting in Opposition to Nominee over Faith

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was in serious contention to be the 2016 Democrat candidate for U.S. President, has reiterated his belief that a nominee should be disqualified from a federal leadership post based on his belief that Christ is the only way of salvation. Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union this week, Sanders re-affirmed his belief that Russell Vought, nominated to be Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, was “unacceptable” for office because of an article he wrote expressing his theological views in the context of a Christian college debate about Islam.

Earlier this month, during a hearing in the Senate Budget Committee, Ranking Member Sanders confronted Vought with an article he had posted on the conservative website The Resurgent defending Wheaton College in its decision to terminate a professor for her position on Islam. The senator particularly zeroed in on the article’s statement: “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.” Sanders called this “indefensible,” “hateful,” and “Islamophobic.” What followed was a tense exchange during which Vought attempted amid interruption to explain his faith and his resulting beliefs in Christ as the Savior and that all people should be treated with respect as being made in the image of God. Finally, Sen. Sanders concluded, “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”

The senator’s comments have stirred strong response from some quarters, including from Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who said that Sanders had come “dangerously close” to violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on a religious test for public office.  “We cannot say we have the free exercise of religion and also require people to practice their faith only in a way that government officials prefer,” Lankford declared.

However, thus far there has been no formal apology or condemnation of Sanders’ remarks in Congress. To the contrary, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), previously a top House leader and now chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, added to the criticism of Vought in the committee hearing. The senator appeared to suggest that Vought’s beliefs were wrong. He said, “I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian, in my view, is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God.” While Van Hollen said he wasn’t questioning Vought’s faith, he stated that the nominee’s writings “suggest a violation of the public trust in what will be a very important position.”

For his part, Sanders stands by his remarks. On Sunday, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked, “Senator, are you saying that someone is necessarily hateful and Islamophobic if they believe in their private life and express that in private life the only path to God is through Jesus Christ?” Sanders suggested the Constitution allows private citizens to believe what they wish; however, Vought’s stated beliefs were “unacceptable as a government official.”

After being approved by the Budget Committee, Vought’s nomination was advanced out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee by a partisan 8-7 roll call vote and is now ready for action on the Senate Floor.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: June 23, 2017

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