Hell Makes the News

A few days ago I posted some contrasting literary conceptions of hell. Today hell makes the news. Evidently Bernie Sanders (yes, the Bernie Sanders) thinks that the traditional Christian belief that salvation requires faith in Jesus disqualifies a person from holding public office. Such, at any rate, seems to be the reasoning behind his inferring that Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Budget and Management, “is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about” from Vought’s refusal to deny that Muslims — or any other non-Christians, and probably, by Vought’s lights, many people who think of themselves as Christians — will be going to hell if they do not come to faith in Christ. There’s some dispute about the legality of Sanders’ questioning, but it seems likely that Sanders can vote however he wants for whatever reason he wants and that simply questioning Vought about his religious beliefs does not amount to a religious test for office. Legality aside, though, Sanders’ reasoning and behavior here seem monumentally stupid; refusing to vote for someone for holding this traditional view seems wrong in principle, and it seems especially moronic strategically.

Perhaps I should put some of my cards out on the table to dispel any appearances that my thoughts on this issue are badly motivated. As an agnostic, I don’t believe in divine salvation or punishment. As a matter of theology, when I’ve thought seriously about this question, I’ve mostly sympathized with what would usually be considered fairly liberal and recent views but are perhaps historically not so heterodox after all. Like many, believers and non-believers alike, I find it hard to believe that God could really demand that everyone assent to certain propositions or participate in certain rituals before death in order to avoid eternal damnation. But if one takes the issue seriously, it’s complicated and not something that can be settled by a mere appeal to one’s feelings. There is, of course, a serious question about whether one should take the issue seriously at all, and whether one should take religious belief seriously at all. If not, then theological complexities are irrelevant. But I think they are, or should be, irrelevant here in any case. The question, after all, is not whether some religious belief about hell is true or reasonable; it’s whether holding a certain religious belief about hell disqualifies a person from holding public office.

One might think it should suffice to point out how radical an affirmative answer to that question would be. Vought’s belief, or something like it, is a mainstream, traditional Christian belief. An analogous belief is also a mainstream belief in Islam. Evidently 58% of Americans believe in hell, and while 67% of American religious believers — 66% of Christians and 65% of Muslims — say that salvation is open to people from different religions, only 50% of Christians believe that it is open to people of non-Christian religions (Pew apparently did not ask Muslims the analogous question about whether salvation is open to people from other non-Muslim religions). So we’d be looking at disqualifying 50% of Christians and at least 35% of Muslims from holding public office. I know more than a few people who would probably like to disqualify all religious believers from holding public office, but let’s get real. Or rather, let’s get clear: if we seriously propose to disqualify people from office because they believe that eternal salvation depends on holding religious beliefs of a particular kind, we’re not proposing to have anything like a liberal, pluralistic, democratic society. Maybe liberalism, pluralism, and democracy are all a bunch of crap anyway, but we can save that debate for later. It should be apparent that nobody who takes these ideals seriously should have any truck with reasoning like Bernie’s.

After all, holding this sort of theological belief does not lead, whether by logic or by strong psychological pressures, to treating members of other religions badly or unequally, particularly not in matters of public policy. Of course the two may be often combined, but they certainly need not be and often aren’t. Moreover, people who reject the belief can be just as awful to members of other religions as people who accept it. Anyone who has actually spent time getting to know religious believers should have figured out by now that there is no strong correlation between most theological beliefs and personal behavior. Sure, there are exceptions, but this isn’t one of them. Mohammad Hassan Khalil, quoted in the NPR piece, gets this exactly right: “If I believe all non-Muslims go to hell…it can lead me to look down upon them, see them as just fuel for hell, and not really take them too seriously. Or I could be motivated to want to save them and be unusually kind and nice to them in the hopes that they will convert.” Needless to say, the same holds true of Christians.

Well, it should be needless to say, but perhaps it isn’t. NPR asked Sanders’ people whether he would have asked such a question of a Muslim, given that a similar belief is part of traditional Islam as well. The answer was ‘yes,’ but I’m not buying it. In any case, if Sanders had asked that question of a Muslim, there would be outcry not only from Christian groups and Muslim groups, but from other progressives. Rightly so, because theological beliefs of this kind are simply not relevant to a nominee’s qualifications for a position such as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. But it’s unclear whether Sanders recognizes the absurdity here. When Vought responded to Sanders’ initial question with “I’m a Christian,” Sanders replied “there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world.” Evidently Bernie means to suggest that proper respect for such people requires rejecting Vought’s theology of salvation; it seems not to have occurred to Sanders that very many of those “other people who have different religions in this country and around the world” share more or less the same belief, mutatis mutandis. It’s not clear what relevance the existence of many non-Christians in the world could have in Sanders’ mind. He cannot be supposing that respect for people’s faith requires not rejecting their beliefs, because he obviously rejects Vought’s, and by implication that of millions of others. The best I can muster is that Bernie thinks that theological beliefs of this kind are simply expressions of personal feelings about other people. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense either, even if we entertain the possibility that it’s true, because if it is, then the millions of other people who share the same sort of belief would also have to be intolerably nasty people who are not “who this country is supposed to be about.” So I’m left with the conclusion, unsurprising as it may be, that Bernie Sanders does not have any especially coherent thoughts on this matter, and was simply emoting in the public eye.

The NPR piece also quotes Scott Simpson of Muslim Advocates, who suggests that the trouble with Vought is not his belief, but that he expressed this belief in support of Wheaton College’s suspension of a faculty member who seemed to reject it: Simpson “defended Sanders’ questions and said it’s important to keep Vought’s comments in context — both his original post and the broader political climate. ‘This isn’t some personal expression of how he feels in his heart about theology,’ Simpson said. ‘This is the type of speech that was being used against somebody’ to argue a professor should lose her job.” It seems, well, odd to maintain that Vought is to be rejected because he argued that a professor should lose her job — at a private, confessionally-based institution — because she expressed beliefs contrary to the commitments of the college. After all, Sanders is arguing that Vought should not get a job because he expressed beliefs allegedly contrary to what “this country is supposed to be about.” If Simpson’s strategy is to defend Sanders by diverting attention from the content of Vought’s beliefs onto his expression of them, it’s a failure; given that Sanders’ reasoning is structurally identical to Vought’s — expression of belief that P disqualifies a person from position X — the content has to be what makes the difference. So we’re back where we started, with a slight twist: public officials can believe — sorry, ‘feel’ — what they want in their heart of hearts, but they’d better not say so.

In any case, Sanders’ move is strategically foolish. Democrats and progressives more generally in the United States have a real practical problem right now: they need to convince a good number of people who are not already unconditionally opposed to voting Republican that they are not worse than the Republicans. Talking and acting in ways that suggest invincible hostility to traditional religious beliefs is not a winning strategy, and only feeds into the narratives that paint the right’s opponents in the most sinister colors. The only consolation that left-wing or left-leaning people can take in this is that Bernie didn’t go to a college campus and shout down some moderate liberal professor with taunts of how racist he is before setting some cars on fire and burning an effigy of Trump’s severed head and then demanding a safe space for his feelings.

But I’m not sure why I bother ranting about things like this here. I’ll stop, click ‘publish,’ some of you will read it, most of you will ignore it, maybe a few of you will write nasty or supportive comments, and then we’ll all move on and forget all about it, and tomorrow and the next day and the day after that will bring no real changes to our absurd political and cultural situation. Faciendi plures libros nullus est finis frequensque meditatio carnis adflictio est.

2 thoughts on “Hell Makes the News

  1. Some other discussions:

    Sarah Skwire with some historical perspective: https://panampost.com/editor/2017/06/09/why-bernie-sanders-has-religious-liberty-all-wrong/

    The Atlantic explains the theological background a bit better, and points out that Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat from Maryland, not only supported Sanders with some dubious claims but also seemed, bizarrely, to tell Vought that he was simply mistaken in his interpretation of Christianity: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/bernie-sanders-chris-van-hollen-russell-vought/529614/

    This debacle seems, rightly, to be getting less attention than it might otherwise if not for other hot topics in the news right now. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes a partisan issue. There’s no reason it should, but that seems to be how things work in American politics.


  2. Pingback: BC’s weekend reads | Notes On Liberty

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