When Secular Elites Demand Religious Tests for Public Office

One piece of news in the wake of the surprise election results in the United Kingdom was the announcement that Tim Farron would resign as leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, in large part because of the tension he felt between his party’s platform and his Christian faith. “To be a political leader—especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017—and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me,” he said in a statement. He pressed further against those who questioned his beliefs, saying “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

Mr. Farron has had to retract statements that were pro-life and pro-traditional marriage, with party spokesmen saying he had “changed his mind” on the issues. In 2007 he told a radio interviewer “Abortion is wrong,” but the Liberal Democrat Party quickly clarified that they supported legal abortion. In 2015, Mr. Farron received criticism for responding to a question on the moral nature of homosexual acts by claiming that his “views on personal morality [didn’t] matter”—even though in 2013 he voted to allow same-sex marriage. In a 2017 interview, when asked if he thought homosexual acts were sinful, Mr. Farron replied “I do not.”

It seems Mr. Farron’s apparent conversion to the desired policy positions was not enough for some. Despite the fact that he changed his views and his votes, Mr. Farron still received aggressive questioning and criticism for his Christian faith. What was it they sought, then? Was the mere fact that he was a Christian seen as a threat? Did they want him to apostatize and renounce Christ? One wonders why those who hold other sorts of positions did not receive the same level of questioning regarding their personal views. If a vegan Member of Parliament liked a Facebook post saying “Meat is murder,” would that MP receive top-fold attention about whether he thought all non-vegans were “murderers”?

On our own side of the pond, a hearing for a mid-level Cabinet nominee received more than the usual amount of attention when Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont sharply questioned Russell Vought, the nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, over a blog post he had written last year for the website The Resurgent. Commenting on a theological controversy involving a professor at his alma mater, Vought, an evangelical Christian, 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.”

Sen. Sanders accused Mr. Vought of religious bigotry, asking “Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? They stand condemned, too?” Mr. Vought responded, “Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly with regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.” Sen. Sanders called the post “indefensible and hateful,” with a spokesman from his office later releasing a statement saying, “In a democratic society, founded on the principle of religious freedom, we can all disagree over issues, but racism and bigotry—condemning an entire group of people because of their faith—cannot be part of any public policy.”

The statements from Sen. Sanders and his office have an admixture of truth and error, affirming some valid principles but also mistakenly identifying certain things with one another. While indeed anyone would agree that racism and bigotry “cannot be part of any public policy,” this statement asserts without demonstrating its two key claims. First, where did Mr. Vought state that he desired to make his belief regarding the soteriological status of Muslims into public policy? He made no such claim. Rather, the spokesman is insinuating that any person who holds such views has no place in making public policy. Surely such a demand would be a violation of Article VI of the Constitution, which expressly forbids any religious test for candidates for public office? And to be consistent, would Sen. Sanders question a Muslim candidate on his or her beliefs regarding the moral status of those who have not converted to Islam?

Second, in what sense is this belief “bigoted”? To be a bigot is to have an irrational hatred for a category of people simply for belonging to that category. (Any other definition becomes immediately partisan: “You’re a bigot because you disagree with me, but I’m principled when I disagree with you.”) In Mr. Vought’s statement, there is no animus, no hatred, no blind rage. He believes that if one must accept Jesus Christ to be saved, and Muslims (among others) do not accept Christ, then they cannot be saved. The implication from the statement from Sen. Sanders’s office is that he believes rather in some form of universalism. And he is welcome to do so—but he is not welcome to make agreement with that belief a requirement for government service, any more than Mr. Vought would have the right to require members of his office to sign a statement of Christian belief as a condition of employment. As Emma Green noted at The Atlantic, “It was a remarkable moment: a Democratic senator lecturing a nominee for public office on the correct interpretation of Christianity in a confirmation hearing putatively about the Office of Management and Budget.”

When we speak of America having a “civic religion,” the very last thing we mean, indeed the thing that is not meant at all, is a legal, official, governmental position on certain aspects of theology. Yet it seems increasingly that some traditional theological positions are being anathematized by the new secular consensus, becoming condemned propositions that will likewise lead to the condemnation of the proposer. The alleged “wall of separation” between Church and State is morphing into a semi-permeable membrane that allows movement in only one direction: ideas with a biblical or traditional Christian basis are being kept out of the public square, but the state it seems would like to seep into the Church and define its beliefs for it.

Secular interference in Church affairs is hardly new in the Church’s history, but the American system was designed to prevent such things. Contrary to the opinion of some secularists, the First Amendment was written to protect the churches from the federal government, not the federal government from the churches. (Indeed, nearly every state had an established church at the time the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ratified, and no one saw a contradiction.) It gives people the right to live out their religious beliefs. That’s true tolerance.

Nicholas Senz

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Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, Two Old Books.

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