Sanders pushes religious liberty limits


David Crisp

If your anti-Trumpian urges keep you glued to CNN and MSNBC, you may have missed a couple of instructive stories getting big play on Fox News.

While other cable watchers were wondering this week whether Montana was one of the 39 states targeted in the 2016 election by Russian hackers, over in Fox land, Russian hackers were safely parked behind an iron curtain and our president was making America great again.

Attention at Fox turned to other matters. One was a free staging in New York City of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in which the title role is played by a Donald Trump lookalike. The show gets messy in Act 3, when the lead is stabbed to death, with fake blood staining the stage.

Fox’s Tucker Carlson characterized the production as emblematic of “violence on the left.” A couple of corporate sponsors have backed out of the show because of criticism.

I try not to review things I have not seen, but if the New York production is faithful at all to the original, then it clearly does not argue that assassinating political leaders is a good idea. Shakespeare killed off a lot of characters, but his greatness lay in his ability to make even those who most deserve to die sympathetic and multi-dimensional.

The assassination in “Julius Caesar” ends in disaster: chaos, defeat and the suicide of Brutus, the main instigator, who after impaling himself on his own sword says to the dead Caesar, “I killed not thee with half so good a will.”

Nobody who sits through the entire play will come away thinking that political assassination is a good idea. Unfortunately, those who know the play only from seeing the soundless clip of Caesar’s bloody stabbing playing repeatedly on Fox may draw a different conclusion.

On a second story, Fox hit the nail closer to the head. During a nomination hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, last seen in Montana campaigning for Rob Quist, said he would vote against Russell Vought for “hateful and Islamophobic” speech.

Vought is Trump’s nominee to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Sanders was reacting to an article Vought penned last year for the Resurgent in which he 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.”

To Fox and plenty of other critics, Sanders’ statement sounded a lot like a violation of Article 6 of the Constitution, which says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It didn’t help that Vought’s article actually was a defense of a decision by Wheaton College to fire a tenured political science professor who wore a hijab to show support of Muslim neighbors and who said that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

Sanders’ concern about a public employee who condemns to hell millions of members of a major world religion is understandable. But Vought was, in fact, stating a basic principle common to many Christian faiths. In the fundamentalist church where I was raised, not only Muslims were condemned to Hell but also Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and just about everybody else who belonged—or didn’t belong—to any of the more than 300 religious denominations in the United States. Probably you, too. As the old saying goes, it’s Heaven for climate, Hell for company.

When you get to Hell, look me up. Together we will go visit Hatuey, an Indian chief who was burned to death in 1512 for resisting the Spanish conquest of Cuba. Urged at the stake to convert to Christianity so that his soul might go to Heaven, Hatuey asked if he would find Christians in Heaven. Informed that he would, Hatuey gave a reply that was, in the words of William H. Prescott, “more eloquent than a volume of invective”: “Then I will not be a Christian; for I would not go again to a place where I must find men so cruel!”

That’s the thing about religion. You may think mine is wrong, but you can’t prove it. No wonder the founders didn’t mention religion anywhere else in the original text of the Constitution except that one sentence in Article 6. Politics wasn’t designed to resolve questions of theology.

Alexis de Tocqueville, when he visited America in the 19th century, concluded that religion in America was strong precisely because it was so thoroughly separated from the government. When he asked members of the clergy why they did not seek political office, he wrote, “I found that most of them seemed voluntarily to steer clear of power and to take a sort of professional pride in claiming that it was no concern of theirs.”

Evangelical Christians, who voted overwhelmingly for Trump in November, risk more attacks from the likes of Sanders when they seek to blend religious and political doctrine. Vought might have said, properly, that his beliefs about eternity would not influence how he treats constituents here on earth.

My understanding of Christianity tells me that judged on our own merits, we’re all pretty much doomed to eternal damnation. Only supernatural intervention, not the federal government, can save us. When bakers and wedding photographers refuse work for gay couples because they would be working for sinners, they should recall that refusing to serve sinners cuts them off from making a living anywhere in this world.

Eighteen U.S. senators, among them Steve Daines, R-Mont., urged Trump in a letter in April to issue an executive order protecting religious liberty. When Trump finally did so, in May, the order was so weak that the American Civil Liberties Union announced it wouldn’t even bother to fight it in court.

That’s good news, for all fans of religious liberty. America’s delicate balance between church and state hinges on keeping the two apart. Allowing religious faith to dictate political policy invites the Bernie Sanders of the world to stretch Article 6 into incoherence.

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