The relationship of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) with religion is a bit vague: Born Jewish, Religion News Service in 2015 called him "unabashedly irreligious" and said he only "culturally" identifies as Jewish these days.
As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders once defended the placement of a menorah in a public square.
I devoutly hope Sanders' relationship with the Constitution of the United States is less tenuous, particularly as it relates to the last 20 words of Article 6. This is certainly an issue in the news, right now.
...no religious Test [sic] shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Forgive the long preamble, but it's needed to set up today's other hot Donald Trump administration-related story, the question of whether or not Russell Vought will be allowed a vote by the full U.S. Senate on his nomination as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Sanders may object to Vought on other points -- deadlines didn't allow a review of the full Budget Committee hearing video -- but about 44 minutes into the recording, we find a remarkable attack on the nominee centering on an article Vought wrote about 16 months ago defending Wheaton College, his alma mater, during the controversy over then-professor Lacryia Hawkins and her views on Islam.
Writing at The Resurgent, a conservative blog, Vought declared:
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.
The Vought commentary got to Sanders (I'm guessing he's not a regular reader) and it raised the Green Mountain State solon's hackles, as David French of National Review transcribed for readers:
Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.
Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.
On the recording, Sanders announced his plan to "vote no" on the nomination.
Now, let us turn to how the press looked at this. Whether or not Sanders was "feelin' the Bern," to borrow from his unsuccessful 2016 Democratic primary presidential nomination bid, the HuffPost blog (neé The Huffington Post) had not only its hair on fire, but veered towards self-immolation.
"Bernie Sanders Rips Trump Nominee Who Said Muslims ‘Stand Condemned,’" screamed the headline, with the not-at-all-balanced subhead adding, "Feel the Bern, budget office nominee Russell Vought!"
The story was equally damning:
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tore into one of President Donald Trump’s nominees on Wednesday for saying that Islam is “a deficient theology” and that Muslims “stand condemned” for rejecting Jesus Christ.
Sanders went after Russell Vought, Trump’s choice for deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, as he testified in his Senate Budget Committee nomination hearing. The Vermont senator brought up a January 2016 post that Vought wrote on a conservative blog in which he argues that someone can’t really “know God” without focusing on Jesus. ...
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.
To its credit, HuffPost accurately conveyed other aspects of the discussion:
Fellow committee member [Sen.] Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) scolded Sanders, indirectly, by saying through gritted teeth that he hopes his colleagues “are not questioning the faith of others and how they interpret their faith to themselves.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) later told Gardner he didn’t think Sanders was questioning anybody’s faith but rather “the nominee” was questioning the faith of others. He said Vought is up for a job that is “supposed to uphold the trust of the whole country,” and it is “irrefutable” that his past comments dismiss the religious philosophy of millions.
“I’m a Christian,” Van Hollen said, “but part of being Christian, in my view, is recognizing there are lots of ways people can pursue their god.”
I don't know Van Hollen's religious affiliation -- Wikipedia says "he is of Dutch descent" and could be thus connected to the Dutch Reform Church or its American sibling, the Reformed Church in America. But no one should mistake Van Hollen for a genuine theologian based on these comments. Christians have no trouble "recognizing there are lots of ways" others "pursue" faith, but that doesn't mean a Christian has to accept other faiths as valid means to salvation.
Neither the HuffPost nor the Associated Press, which sent out a widely published item on the Sanders/Vought exchange, mentioned what might rightly be called America's official scripture, the Constitution and Article 6.
For that crucial balancing question, we have to turn to The Atlantic and their principal relgion-and-politics reporter, Emma Green, who I believe has published the single best analysis piece on faith and politics I've read this year:
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders flirted with the boundaries of this rule during a confirmation hearing for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Two sentences. Sixty-one words. And here The Atlantic distils the essence of the story without apocalyptic rhetoric or partisan rancor (I'm talkin' to YOU, HuffPost). Reporter Green couldn't be any clearer, for which readers should be grateful:
Where Sanders saw Islamophobia and intolerance, Vought believed he was stating a basic principle of his belief as an evangelical Christian: that faith in Jesus is the only pathway to salvation. And where Sanders believed he was policing bigotry in public office, others believed he was imposing a religious test. As Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement, “Even if one were to excuse Senator Sanders for not realizing that all Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation, it is inconceivable that Senator Sanders would cite religious beliefs as disqualifying an individual for public office.”
The exchange shows just how tense the political environment under Trump has become. But it’s also evidence of the danger of using religion to deem someone unfit to serve in government.
While I really don't expect HuffPost to trumpet Article 6 when it's inconvenient, I did expect better from the Associated Press. And I'm grateful that, in this instance, we got better from The Atlantic.
Or, as religion writing-expert Bob Smietana put it: