Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sen. Sanders Seeks to Establish Universalism

Professor Kathleen Sullivan once wrote that the First Amendment's provisions on religious freedom and equality reflect "a substantive recognition that there is more than one path to heaven and not as many as once thought to hell." To which Michael McConnell responded: "That is not the disestablishment of religion. It is the establishment of Unitarian-Universalism." (From The Bill of Rights in the Modern State 124 n.50 (U. Chicago Press 1992).

That phrase applies to Bernie Sanders' criticism of Russell Vought, nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, for having posted online statements that Muslims "stand condemned" and "do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son." From Huff Po:

Such a statement is “indefensible, it is hateful and Islamophobic, and an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders told the room. He asked Vought, who sat facing him, if he thinks his past comments are Islamophobic.

“Absolutely not,” replied Vought, a former vice president of the conservative Heritage Action for America. “I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post … was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation.”

Sanders interjected, “Do you believe that people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” ...

“Senator, I’m a Christian ... ,” Vought began again.

“I understand that you are a Christian!” Sanders shouted. “There are other people of 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?”

Vought said he respects all people and repeated that he wrote his post based on being a Christian. That was it for Sanders.

“I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders said, gathering up his papers. “I will vote no.”

Believing that one's religion is the only way to God is quite common and surely should not in itself disqualify someone from office. Making that alone the basis for disqualification violates the principles of the Free Exercise Clause, the Religious Test Clause (for federal offices like those in OMB), and the Establishment Clause--by, as McConnell pointed out, establishing universalism as the only permissible religious opinion for federal officials. 

(As I understand the context of Vought's views, he was defending Wheaton College's decision to fire Larycia Hawkins, a professor, for stating that Muslims "worship the same God" as Christians do. In that context Vought, a Wheaton alum, argued that the college could fire her because one cannot worship the same God--not even deficiently--without approaching God through Christ. My own views on that question, expressed here on MOJ, are almost certainly closer to Prof. Hawkins's than to Mr. Vought's. But the issue is not which view of God and salvation is theologically accurate; it is whether Vought should be disqualified from this office for his view.) 

Religious beliefs criticizing or condemning other faiths are relevant in some cases. It would be relevant if Vought had written that Muslims as a group cannot  be trusted as citizens because of their religion (claims we unfortunately see all too often). But that form of criticism/condemnation concerns civil status and participation, not religious salvation. The civil equality of religions under the First Amendment does depend upon officials avoiding blanket statements that members of a faith cannot be trusted as citizens, because it's short step from such statements to treating people unequally in civil matters. (Probably a short enough step to justify voting against any nominee who wrote that Muslims can't be trusted.) But Vought said that Muslim citizens are entitled to equal respect; he made clear, in his post and his attempts to answer Sanders, that he was speaking about theological not civic matters--about the nature of God, worship, and the way to salvation. And the First Amendment rests upon bracketing such theological disputes, neither punishing nor favoring people for their varying views. Without such bracketing, those with non-pluralistic beliefs on ultimate matters will themselves face civil restrictions and discrimination. A belief that another person is condemned in an ultimate sense might lead one to mistreat or disrespect them in civic matters, but surely not necessarily so. People with such non-pluralistic theological beliefs live and work with others respectfully day after day in myriad settings (partly because they believe that it is not a matter of comparative merit--that all, even nominal Christians, are condemned in an ultimate sense unless they rely on Christ).

If the nominee is to be working in a field where his or her attitude toward another faith is relevant, even a publicly expressed belief about ultimate matters could well interfere with performing the job. You certainly could vote against confirming an ambassador to Saudi Arabia who expressed Vought's view about Muslims and salvation. But unless I greatly misunderstand things, beliefs about ultimate salvation are irrelevant to ability to do the work of the OMB. Thus to vote against someone for OMB is simply a penalty on his belief, a bare religious test for a federal office, and a statement that universalism is the orthodox view on religious salvation.

Fear and prejudice toward Muslims is a significant problem in our country. But the resistance to it should take the form of guaranteeing civic equality, and countering true hate, not imposing disabilities solely for views about theological matters. Belief that a religion is false, and cannot lead one to God or ultimate salvation, can coexist with respect for the equal dignity of its members. If we assume that the two cannot coexist, we will start reinjecting the government into controversies about ultimate matters that our religious-freedom tradition has wisely sought to avoid.


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