Two Democrats in the Senate appeared to subject one of President Donald Trump’s nominees to a religion test in confirmation hearings for Russell Vought. Trump nominated Vought, a alumnus of conservative Wheaton College, to serve as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
In January, Vought published an article at The Resurgent, a conservative website, in which he disagreed with statements made last year when Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins decided to wear a hijab during Advent in solidarity with Muslims. Explaining herself, she wrote, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Citing evangelical Christian theologian John Stackhouse, Vought quoted Stackhouse as follows:. “Having a deficient (e.g., nontrinitarian) theology of God, does not mean you are not in actual prayerful and faithful relationship with God.” To this Vought said of adherents of Islam, “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.”
During the June 7 Senate hearing on Vought’s qualifications, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a statement at 1:25 p.m. on June 8 and quoted Vought’s article:
“Religious freedom is such a fundamental liberty that the framers of our Constitution enshrined it in the First Amendment. That’s why it’s so disturbing that Trump continues to pack his administration with appointees like Russell Vought, whose views threaten that very freedom.
“Trump’s nominee for this powerful position that helps decide how federal money is spent has claimed that ‘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.’”
In its statement, the ACLU charged, “We know that diversity is one of our nation’s greatest strengths, and it is vitally important that Americans have confidence that their public servants will serve our entire nation in good faith. That’s why we will watch Vought closely and press to ensure that those helping decide how public money is spent and the government is managed understand the vital importance of nondiscrimination.”
Just an hour later,Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked Vought on the quote during the nomination hearing. “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” said Sanders. “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms … we must not go backwards.”
The Vermont socialist read out the quote in the hearing and asked Vought, “Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” Vought answered that he did not believe so, averring that he is a Christian who is based in his religious faith. He said that the statement is an assertion of Wheaton College’s statement of faith about the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation. Sanders then interrupted him, asking whether Muslims stand condemned. When Vought reiterated that he is a Christian, Sanders interjected and asked whether Jews stand condemned. Once again, when Vought sought to explain himself and his Christian faith, Sander’s interrupted him. Yelling, Sanders said, “I understand you are a Christian. But this country is made up of people who are not just [sic], I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?”
When Vought sought to answer, Sanders interrupted Vought again to ask if the statement that “they do not know God” is respectful of other religions. Once Vought managed to answer, Sanders said, “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”
Thereafter, Senator Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D) of Maryland said,
“I think it is irrefutable that these kinds of comments suggest to a whole lot of Americans that, number one . . . you are condemning people of all faiths. I’m a Christian, but part of being a Christian in my view is recognizing that there are lots of ways that people can pursue their God. . . . It’s your comments that suggest a violation of the public trust in what will be a very important position.”
The Gospel Coalition Council member and Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore said responded to Sanders’ remarks:
“Senator Sanders’ comments are breathtakingly audacious and shockingly ignorant—both of the Constitution and of basic Christian doctrine. 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 in defiance of the United States Constitution. No religious test shall ever be required of those seeking public office. While no one expects Senator Sanders to be a theologian, we should expect far more from an elected official who has taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution.”