Justin Taylor just posted a helpful round-up of pieces responding to the recent exchange between Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, the nominee for deputy White House budget director. The exchange happened on Wednesday, and was transcribed by David French. And before you even read all the replies, go ahead and watch the exchange here (the relevant portion starts at 44:20). Or here on YouTube:
It begins like this:
Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You 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.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?
Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .
Now, no criticism of Vought here, since we all tend to perform more poorly under pressure than we do sitting in front of our computers in an office with no one breathing down our neck. He used a version of this reply several times until Sanders angrily cut him off and said this to the Chairman of the committee:
“I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”
The pieces I linked to above do a good job of describing how unconstitutional all this is. But there’s something else we could all benefit from thinking through here.
I think we can all feel the weight of Sanders’ criticism here, at least in terms of how much cultural power it has behind it right now. I don’t claim that we can, by being clever in our discussion techniques, defeat a Sanders in an argument or even convert him on the spot. The time for that may be largely past. But many people listen in on these discussions, and while Christians may be turned down for posts all over the place in the coming future, we still will do well to be able to give clear answers to the fears and criticisms all around us.
So here’s one simple thought I think we should have ready for a line of questioning like this. It seems to me that the tip of Sanders’ criticism turned on the word “condemned.” Said by someone in his position, the word comes to feel like a threat. It is as if Sanders was saying, “Do you think that people of other religions should be condemned? That they should be killed or excluded or locked away?” And of course, the Christian says no to all that. Vought began to say as much at one point, when he replied to the repeated questioning on this matter by saying:
As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals.
Again, no criticism. The man was under pressure. And it may be that he was saying exactly what the Holy Spirit was teaching him to say (see Luke 12:11-12). But as we all think through these things, and as we will all be called to give answers for our message in all kinds of situations, I think we might just want to be prepared to say something like this:
Senator, it seems like you’re taking exception to my use of the word “condemned.” But I should make it clear that that word refers to the final judgement which the Bible says will be rendered, by Jesus Christ, on those who have rejected him as king and refused his forgiveness. That’s what the word refers to when a Christian uses it. The bible teaches that all of us are liable for that verdict because of our sin until we repent and receive forgiveness from Jesus. Christians recognize that truth about all different kinds of people, and at the same time Jesus calls us to love everyone, especially those who have this condemning sin in their lives. We’re called to bless them, to sacrifice for them, to help them, and to faithfully point them to the forgiveness and life Jesus offers. That’s true whether we’re dealing with Muslims, or Jewish people, or anyone else. So a Christian in public office would be able to recognize the seriousness of a person’s separation from Christ, and at the same time respect and protect them in accordance with the law of the land. In other words, you have nothing to fear from me when I use this word condemned. I am called to extend compassion to all people.
In other words, if someone’s going to object to our message, and we get the chance, let’s help them be very clear on exactly what they’re objecting to. In doing so, we might not win the argument, but we might win some hearers, and continue to commend the Gospel to those around us, even in difficult times.