In early June (2017) Russell Vought appeared before a committee of the United States Senate as the president’s nominee to serve as the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). During the hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) questioned Vought about a piece he wrote in defense of the Wheaton College regarding the dismissal of Dr. Larycia Hawkins.
The exchange is simultaneously frightening and enlightening. It is frightening because of Sen. Sanders apparent ignorance of basic Christian orthodoxy. Unless he was being quite disingenuous, he seems entirely unaware that it is biblical teaching and Christian doctrine that belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven. After all, Christ said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Modernists have abandoned the historic Christian doctrine of exclusivity but it remains the ecumenical orthodox and evangelical faith. Emma Green, in The Atlantic was able to see what Sen. Sanders was apparently unable to see.
As you have seen for yourself, Sen. Sanders proceeds to query Vought not about his views relative to OMB or fiscal policy and the like but about his personal religious views. Sanders was incensed that anyone should believe that Jesus is the Messiah and without faith in him they are eternally condemned. Why is Sen. Sanders so offended? After all, as a boy in Brooklyn, he was instructed in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). He understands the rudiments of Judaism. The Orthodox synagogue in which was instructed rejected Jesus as the Messiah and as God the Son incarnate. Does that make Sanders a bigot? No. Vought holds the historic Christian view. Does that make him a bigot? No.
The difference between Vought and Sanders, however, is that the latter sought to use the religious convictions of the former as a basis for excluding him from holding public office. This, as Green notes, is flatly contrary to the express language of the Constitution of the United States:
3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States (Art. 6, §3).
It is frightening to think that a candidate for the office of President of the United States might be so apparently ignorant of the most basic document in American civil life. It is disturbing that he has apparently not corrected himself or issued an apology for transgressing the express prohibition of the constitution.
Sen. Sanders’ inquisition is, however, also enlightening. It illumines how important it is for Christians to be clear to each other and to the watching world, to secularists, to Jews, to Muslims, and to everyone else that we live in a twofold kingdom. Jesus has a kingdom but, as he said, it is “not of this world” (John 18:36). It is certainly “in the world” (1 Tim 3:16; Phil 2:15; John 17:14–16) but their ultimate allegiance is to a heavenly city (Phil 3:20) whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). We are to serve this earthly city as good citizens, living “quiet and godly” lives and praying for the magistrate (1 Tim 2:2). We recognize the civil magistrate as God’s minister (Rom 13:4) who executes a sort of civil covenant of works among citizens, punishing evil doers and rewarding those who exercise civil righteousness (Rom 13:1–7). We do not (or ought not) seek to impose the Christian faith on anyone by means of civil authority. It is beyond denying that it was done for a very long time. We call that period of Western history Christendom. It was a mistake for which we are (or ought to be) sorry.
This country, however, was founded to be religiously pluralist. It is true that there were state (but not federal) churches in the colonial period and in the early history of the republic. Those were abolished by the early 19th century. The pendulum, however, seems to have swung dramatically the other way, toward the exclusion of orthodox Christians from civil life on the basis of their confession of faith. Remarkably, the ACLU apparently supports Sanders rather than Vought. One may find Vought’s view personally odious (I agree with Vought) but the Constitution is unequivocal. If Vought can be excluded from public office for believing historic Christian teaching, then Sanders can be excluded for his orthodox Jewish background or because of his apparent indifference to the same today. The Deists and Christians who formed the Republic intended to prevent this very thing from happening. They intended that Christians and Deists and others should be able to serve in civil government side by side, peacefully, because the government is only intended to administer proximate, penultimate, and secular things not ultimate (e.g., religious) and sacred matters. The moment Sanders sets a religious test, the we have to use the language of the Supreme Court, “gross governmental entanglement” in religion.
We might forgive Sen. Sanders for being a little confused about what some Christians intend because some evangelicals and fundamentalists have indeed spoken about “taking back” America and about “Christian America” both highly dubious notions. On the question of whether and when America might be said to have been “Christian” see “Magic and Noise: On Being Reformed in Sister’s America” in Always Reformed. As to “taking back” America, that entails a confusion of the two spheres of God’s kingdom, the sacred and the secular. The sacred is administered officially in the visible church and the secular includes the civil and other spheres. God already possesses all the kingdoms in the world. Nero was his civil minister and so was George Washington. There is no “taking back” what is already his.
That the Lord is already sovereign over all the magistrates in the world does not mean that in order for them to be legitimate they must recognize him as such. Nero was Caesar when Paul called him God’s minister, to whom we must submit and pay taxes. Paul neither taught nor implied that Caesar’s office was contingent upon his recognition of Christ. God was Lord then. Caesar was the civil minister then. God is Lord now. The civil authorities are his ministers now.
As citizens of these United States, Senator Sanders, Russell Vought, you, and I are all obligated to the Constitution of the United States. As a Christian, my allegiance is to a King and a Kingdom that is eternal and will be in authority long after the kingdom and powers of this earth have passed.