Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

I realize (trigger warning!) that the U.S. Constitution is a rather controversial subject right now, with all the talk about U.S. Senate “majority votes” and tiny little red flyover states getting to have two senators, just like blue powerhouse states on the coasts.

Still, it’s a good thing for journalists in mainstream newsrooms to know a thing or two about this document, especially when covering the religion beat. I’m not just talking about the free press and freedom of religion stuff, either.

Yet another wild story in the White House has raised an issue that, #ALAS, I think we will be seeing more of in the near future. The key issue: Candidates for public service facing “religious tests” served up by their critics.

First things first: Ladies and gentlemen, here is Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This leads us to several relatively recent news stories that raised questions about “religious tests.”

The key question: Can journalists recognize “religious tests” when they take place on the political left and the right?

On the “conservative” side of the political battlefield, let’s flip a coin between coverage of Judge Amy Coney Barrett (Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”) and coverage of Russell Vought, when he was nominated for an Office of Management and Budget post in the Trump White House.

Let’s go with Vought, whose case didn’t get as much attention.

The drama opens with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont asking the nominee about a Vought document linked to a Wheaton College controversy in which a religion professor claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Vought, also a former Wheaton professor, argued, in print, that eternal salvation was found through Jesus — alone. The following is from an “On Religion” column I wrote about this showdown:

… Sanders said: "You wrote, '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.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

Sanders shouted him down: "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?" Sanders concluded that he would reject Vought because, "this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about."

This nominee is “really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”

Was Sanders proposing a religion test? Lots of people said “yes” to that one, including me.

So let’s switch to Trump territory, and a Washington Post story with this headline: “ ‘A biblical view of justice:’ Matt Whitaker once said judges shouldn’t have a secular worldview.” Here is the overture:

In a 2014 debate when he was running for the U.S. Senate, acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker said judges should have a Christian worldview, and that a judge with a “secular worldview” would be problematic, according to reports from that time.

Efforts to reach Whitaker, who was appointed Wednesday by President Trump to the post of acting attorney general, were not immediately successful. A May 2014 report in the Des Moines Register cited the event, in a critical column by Register opinion writer Rekha Basu.

In her column, Basu described an April 25, 2014, debate among candidates vying for a U.S. Senate seat from Iowa. The debate was hosted by the Family Leader, a conservative Christian group, and was moderated by Erick Erickson, then a popular conservative blogger who went on to found news site the Resurgent.

“If they have a secular worldview, where this is all we have here on Earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge,” Whitaker says at the Family Leader debate on a video published in April 2014 by the progressive advocacy group Right Wing Watch.

Does this sound like Whitaker might be applying a “religious test” to judges coming from the secular left side of the legal spectrum?

Frankly, I think it does. There is certainly material there that is worthy of mainstream news coverage and further explanation.

Please remember that this is why GetReligion cares about these kinds of issues: We want to see questions of this kind — on the left and right — explored with careful, accurate, balanced coverage.

In this case, the Post “Acts of Faith” team did seek clarification from a Whitaker supporter. Here is a piece of that, from an interview with Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of Family Leader:

Asked whether Whitaker’s comments implied that the acting attorney general opposed judges who are not Christian or don’t share his religious beliefs, Vander Plaats said: “I’m not so sure I’d ascribe that to Matt. I think what he’s looking at is someone who understood the original intent of the Constitution.” The Founding Fathers, he said, and the Declaration of Independence, made assumptions about “nature’s God.”

“When there is a higher purpose that we as a people can unite around, then we can have the most fair implementation of justice and law in our society,” Vander Plaats said.

Is this story over? I would think not.

What about the earlier stories. Are they over?

I would think not, especially if another seat opens up on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dogma questions, anyone?

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