I have long opposed Bernie Sanders’ socialist, anti-constitution, and anti-family agenda. Yet I feel the need to come to the senator’s defense on the issue of religious tests.
On Wednesday, the Senate Budget Committee held its confirmation hearing for Russell Vought, President Trump’s recent nominee for deputy budget director. Sanders aggressively interrogated the nominee during the hearing about an article he had written after his alma mater, Wheaton College, a private Evangelical college in Illinois, forced out a professor for making curiously unorthodox doctrinal statements about Islam. Specifically, Sanders found this excerpt from Vought’s article particularly offensive:
“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.”
Sanders asked Vought whether he believed the statement was Islamophobic, to which the nominee responded by explaining that his article was written in accordance with Wheaton College’s statement of beliefs and traditional Christian doctrine. Vought then proceeded to clarify that he, as a Christian, believes Jesus Christ is central to salvation.
Sanders, clearly offended by Vought’s religious beliefs, told the committee that he would vote against confirming the nominee.
Many on the political left and right alike were horrified that Sanders would choose not to support a presidential nominee merely because of the nominee’s religious beliefs. In an article published by The Atlantic, Emma Green accuses Sanders of creating “a religious test for Christians in office.” Writing for National Review, David French commends Bernie Sanders “to brush up on his civic education and remember that religious freedom belongs even to citizens (and nominees) he doesn’t like.”
Despite these hyperbolic claims, it’s important to realize that Bernie Sanders isn’t creating a religious test by refusing to support Vought’s nomination.
It’s true that Article VI of the Constitution bans religious tests for “any office or public trust under the United States.” It certainly would be unconstitutional for Congress to pass a law prohibiting Christians from serving in elected federal offices. Similarly, Congress could not require that all elected officials belong to a particular denomination or ascribe to certain theological beliefs.
However, Bernie Sanders isn’t advocating the enactment of laws forbidding Christians from holding office. Instead, he is simply exercising his right as a citizen and senator to withhold his support for a presidential nominee with whom he disagrees, an action that is unquestionably allowable under Article VI.
An historical anecdote may better elucidate this point. When early Americans worried that Muslims, atheists, or pagans might be elected to federal office, Justice James Iredell, a George Washington appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, assured his apprehensive countrymen that it was unlikely that the voters would ever elect candidates with religious beliefs the voters believed to be aberrant:
“But it is objected that the people of America may perhaps choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and [Muslims] may be admitted into offices. . . . But it is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own.”
Although the Constitution forbids the federal government from employing religious tests for federal officeholders, the people are left free to support or oppose candidates on the basis of religious beliefs.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” during this last election cycle, Republican presidential nominee Dr. Ben Carson adamantly declared that he would not agree with “putting a Muslim in charge of this nation” because Islam is inconsistent with the Constitution. Unsurprisingly, hysterical liberal journalists began accusing Carson of imposing an unconstitutional religious test.
Just like Carson has the right to oppose a Muslim presidential candidate, Sanders has the right to object to a Christian presidential nominee, even if his only reason is because he finds Christian theology reprehensible. While our Constitution bans the federal government from implementing religious tests for officials, it thankfully allows the people and their representatives to consider whether someone’s religion makes him or her unfit for the office he or she is seeking.
Our nation’s founders unquestionably believed that the people’s right to judge a candidate’s religion is essential to their function as voters. We shouldn’t argue otherwise.
This article was originally written for the Family Policy Institute of Washington.