Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Does anyone remember the days, a decade or two ago, when the official boogeyman of religious conservatism was a cultural tsunami called "secular humanism"?

I sure do. That nasty label was being pinned on people all over the place.

The only problem was, when I went out to do my religion-beat reporting work, I never seemed to run into many people whose personal beliefs actually fit under the dictionary definition of "secular," which looks something like this:

secular (adjective)
1. of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music.

I hardly ever met culture warriors who didn't have religious beliefs of some kind. Oh, there were some atheists and agnostics in these dramas. But what what I kept running into were packs of evolving, progressive, liberal religious believers who rejected the beliefs of traditional religious believers, almost always on issues linked to sexuality and salvation.

Yes, there were also some "spiritual but not religious" folks, but when you talked to them you discovered that they would be perfectly happy in a Unitarian folding chair or an Episcopal pew -- if they wanted to get out of bed on Sunday mornings. And if you probe those Pew Research Center "Nones" numbers, you'll discover that most religiously unaffiliated people are rather spiritual, on their own "Sheilaism" terms. You can toss the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism trend in there, too.

Variations on all of these themes popped up this week when Todd Wilken and recorded the new "Crossroads"podcast (click here to tune that in). We discussed my new "On Religion" column about the recent U.S. Senate hearing showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, the White House nominee to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders, for those who have been visiting another planet, shouted down Vought when he refused to stop defending the traditional Christian belief that salvation is found through Jesus, alone. This has obvious implications for discussions of heaven and hell. Here's the hot soundbite:

Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"
Sanders interrupted: "I understand you are a Christian! But this country is made of people who are not. … Do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?"

In the end, Sanders said he would have to reject Vought because, "this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about."

The key question in my column: Would Sanders have rejected a Muslim nominee who was willing to defend his own faith's claims to absolute truth on issues of salvation and eternal life? Traditional Muslims also reject "universalism," the belief that all believers are "saved," no matter what they believe.

Online, many conservative commentators pounced -- noting that Sanders appeared to be attacking Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which says "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

For me, however, the most interesting part of this story was that Sanders was debating a point of doctrine that wasn't linked to Vought's public work. No one was claiming that he was guilty of acts of discrimination against Muslims, Jews or anyone else. Rather, Vought was being found guilty of a doctrinal sin against -- what?

Many said Sanders -- a Jewish skeptic -- was trying to establish "secularism" as the norm for public life. But is that really what was happening?

Here is a question for journalists who covered this story: Would Sanders have rejected a liberal Christian nominee who was willing to embrace universalism?

Of course not. So are we really dealing with "secular humanism" in this case?

The big idea, as in many public debates (and in mainstream media coverage of them), is that there are good religious believers and then there are bad religious believers. The goal isn't pure secularism, but forms of religion that are acceptable to those (yes, including some secularists) who get to define (hello James Davison Hunter) the doctrines of the emerging lowest common denominator public faith.

The same thing is happening, right now, on the other side of the Atlantic.

The leader of England's Liberal Democrats recently resigned after waves of questions about his private, evangelical Protestant beliefs about abortion and sexuality.

The key is that Tim Farron had already taken public stands in favor of legalized abortion and gay marriage. No, the question -- pressed by reporters, over and over -- was the state of the beliefs in his head and heart. The key word was "sin."

Check out the following, drawn from an April essay at the New Statesman, long before Farron's resignation:

Tim Farron, leader of the Lib Dems and an evangelical Christian, has been criticised this week for failing to say whether or not he believes being gay is a sin. Following a day of negative coverage, he eventually told the Commons “I do not” believe being gay is a sin, though his views on whether gay sex is a sin remain up in the air.

Note the highly specific nature of this doctrinal debate in the public square!

The issue isn't Farron's religious beliefs on (a) gay rights, (b) the mysteries of sexual orientation or (c) whether same-sex attractions are, in and of themselves, sinful. No, the question is whether acts of gay sex are sinful. Is that still a political issue in England? I mean, this man isn't trying to become a bishop in the Church of England.

An interview on Channel 4 News yesterday marked his fourth refusal to give presenter Cathy Newman a clear answer to the question of whether homosexuality is sinful.
“I’m not in a position to be making theological pronouncements,” he replied. “I’m not going to spend my time talking theology or making pronouncements.”
When pressed, he carried on refusing to say whether or not he views homosexuality as a sin. He added: “As a liberal, I’m passionate about equality -- about equal marriage, about equal rights for LGBT people.”
This is the mini sequel to a notorious interview by the same journalist in 2015, a day after Farron was elected party leader, when he prevaricated over the question: “Personally, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?”
He repeatedly refused to deny that gay sex is a sin, instead saying, “We are all sinners”

Coming soon to a government conference room near you?

Journalists need to ponder the fine details in these stories. Is this a debate about politics alone or about religious doctrines, even when these doctrines are "private" beliefs? Are we really talking about "thought crimes"?

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