While most of Washington was eagerly awaiting former FBI Director James Comey's Thursday appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, they may have missed an important confirmation hearing that occurred a day earlier. On Wednesday, Russell Vought, President Trump's nominee for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) appeared before the Senate Budget Committee where he was subjected to stiff questioning by Senator Bernie Sanders.
At issue were a number of statements Vought had made in support of Wheaton College's decision, last year, to suspend and then fire a tenured African American professor, Larycia Hawkins. The reason: Wheaton College is a Christian school and Hawkins, who is Christian, not only donned a hijab in a gesture of solidarity with America's Muslim community but then later declared that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God".
In an article defending Wheaton's action, Vought argued that Hawkins' views were in err since "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".
At Vought's confirmation hearing, Senator Sanders read the above quote and then asked the nominee, "Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?"
Vought responded, "Absolutely not, Senator. I'm a Christian and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post [the one quoted by Sanders] ...was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school..."
Sanders: "...Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?"
Vought: "Again Senator, I'm a Christian and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College."
Sanders: "...What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?"
Vought: "Senator, I'm a Christian..."
Sanders: "I understand that you are a Christian, but this country is made up of people who are not just [Christian]...there are other people of different religions in this country...In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christian are going to be condemned?"
Vought: "...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".
Sanders: "You think that your statement...[that] they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that's respectful of other religions?".
Sanders concluded his questioning saying, “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is not really someone who this country is supposed to be about."
Following this exchange, Sanders was attacked for what one National Review writer termed, a "disgraceful and unconstitutional line of questioning" and in a few more mainstream publications for "imposing a religious test for public office".
I cannot agree with Sanders' critics. He is right. Vought is not what America is "supposed to be about" and he is not fit to serve as Deputy Director of OMB for two important reasons.
In the first place, it is Vought, not Sanders who has used a religious test to support the firing of a tenured professor. His demonstrated intolerance is a disturbing trait for someone in public service. Vought may claim that all are "worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs", but when it came to Professor Hawkins, a fellow Christian, Vought behaved quite differently, precisely because her description of her faith did not comport with his narrow interpretation of Christian theology.
Secondly, OMB is the office in the White House that not only helps the President develop his budget, it also advises agencies on how to implement their programs in accordance with the priorities set by the Administration. To have a Deputy Director of OMB who has not only expressed intolerance toward those who do not share his interpretation of his faith, but who has also demonstrated this intolerance in practice is worrisome. This behavior calls into question his ability to implement policies and disperse resources without prejudice.
One wonders if we would even be having this discussion if the nominee were a Christian who claimed, as some have, that their faith holds: that Jews are condemned because they rejected Jesus; or that Black people are the descendants of Noah's son Ham marked by God for their sin; or that women are inferior to men; or that gays are condemned, etc? Of course, individuals have the right to hold such beliefs, but when seeking a position of public trust aren't we entitled to know whether these beliefs will impact their judgments?
As the ACLU noted in its comment on this controversial nomination, "Religious freedom is such a fundamental liberty that the framers of our Constitution enshrined it in the First Amendment. That's why it's so disturbing that Trump continues to pack his administration with appointees like Russell Vought, whose views threaten that very freedom... We know that diversity is one of our nation's greatest strengths, and it is vitally important that Americans have confidence that their public servants will serve our entire nation in good faith."
Senator Sanders is right. At issue is not Vought's Christian faith or his theology. It is his intolerance for the faiths of others, including a fellow Christian whose termination he supported because he did not agree with her theology. His nomination should be rejected.
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