A couple weeks ago Bernie Sanders undertook a provocative line of questioning during the confirmation hearing of a fellow named Russell Vought. You may have heard of this feisty exchange. It certainly got the attention of Christian conservatives who consider it solid evidence of secular incredulity toward and persecution of orthodox Christians. Here is a three minute excerpt from the exchange which was titled “Godless Communist Bernie Sanders YELLS at Trump Nominee”:
Let’s pick up the exchange with Bernie attempting to ferret out Vought’s conservative theology as evidence of bigotry. It begins with Bernie quoting from an article Vought wrote in which he denies that Muslims know God:
“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.”
Bernie is clearly horrified by what he is reading and he assumes everyone else will be as well. And so like a master prosecutor he then lays down the gauntlet with this question:
“Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?”
Vought’s matter-of-fact response is charming in a Jimmy Stewart kind of way:
“Absolutely not Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post … was to defend … Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and …”
At that point Bernie Sanders rudely cuts off Vought and they go back and forth some more. But we have enough at that point that I can offer some reflections.
First, it is clear that Sanders needs to get out more. He has apparently never stopped to consider what many Christians believe. (Perhaps too much time hobnobbing with secular New Englanders at wine and cheese receptions in Vermont.)
Bernie also illustrates the common liberal penchant for attaching the “phobia suffix” to those conservatives with whom you disagree: in this case: “Islamophobia”. News flash to Bernie: having an exclusivist and christocentric soteriology does not automatically entail Islamophobia. (Nor does it entail atheophobia or any other phobia.)
So much for Bernie. There’s no doubt: he comes off very badly in this exchange: perhaps he should go back to talking about health care and taxing the rich.
And what about Vought? While he definitely comes off better than Bernie, his side of the exchange is problematic in a different way, and that relates to his presentation of an exclusivist soteriology as if it reflects Christian soteriology simpliciter.
News flash to Vought: it doesn’t. Throughout history many Christians have rejected his exclusivism. Instead, they’ve seen salvation in Christ extending (or possibly extending) beyond the confines of those who make a verbal confession of belief in Christ. The essence of Christian soteriology is that we are all saved in and through Christ, not that all people necessarily need to believe a specific set of propositions about Christ in order to be saved by Christ.
Think about it like this. Picture a fellow named Ibrahim who is born and raised a Muslim in Saudi Arabia. Ibrahim has never met a Christian and all he knows of Christianity is what he has learned through the local mosque and the Qur’an. But Ibrahim seeks to be a good man: he is kind and gentle and loved by all in his community. And he regularly works to help the poor and fight for the protection of women in a patriarchal society. Then, at 23 years old, Ibrahim is murdered by a fundamentalist who is offended by his defense of women and their rights.
Does Christian belief require one to believe Ibrahim is in hell? No. It. Doesn’t. All Christianity does require one to believe is that if Ibrahim is ultimately reconciled to God then that reconciliation occurs in and by Christ.
Had Vought not conflated his narrower soteriological exclusivism (i.e. one must believe a particular set of propositions to be saved by Jesus) with Christianity simpliciter (i.e. all who are saved are saved by Jesus) he could have avoided this whole confrontation with the benighted secular New Englander, Mr. Bernie Sanders.
And from that perspective, neither one of our two interlocutors emerges from this abortive exchange unscathed.