During last year's presidential election campaign, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a latecomer to the Democratic Party, positioned himself as a voice for the downtrodden against big moneyed interests, something that many Americans, especially the young, found deeply attractive. In so doing, Sanders drew on a deep tradition of social justice with biblical roots, as evidenced in his powerful address to Liberty University two years ago. Recognizing that “there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he laudably demonstrated his concern for the economically disadvantaged in our society. However, judging from his questioning earlier this month of Russell Vought, the president’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sanders appears not to understand that there is no justice where religious liberty lacks protection.
At issue was a blog post Vought had written as an alumnus of Wheaton College, a Christian university near Chicago, in response to a controversy involving one of its faculty members. The offending passage was this: “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.” While it may sound harsh to a nonchristian, Vought was in no way suggesting that Muslims cannot be good citizens or should be treated severely by the governing authorities. He was simply reiterating what the vast majority of Christians have believed for two millennia: that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:7).
But this appears not to satisfy Sanders, who has shown himself in this respect to be a good student of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), the Genevan political philosopher who famously proposes an ostensibly tolerant civil religion at the end of Book IV of his Social Contract:
There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them — it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognising these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.
The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.
Those who distinguish civil from theological intolerance are, to my mind, mistaken. The two forms are inseparable. It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned; to love them would be to hate God who punishes them: we positively must either reclaim or torment them. Wherever theological intolerance is admitted, it must inevitably have some civil effect; and as soon as it has such an effect, the Sovereign is no longer Sovereign even in the temporal sphere: thenceforce priests are the real masters, and kings only their ministers.
One needn't dig too far beneath the surface to discern that Rousseau's offer of tolerance could scarcely be more intolerant. Anyone who believes that God has revealed himself in specific ways to specific people and that even the state derives its authority from God cannot be a good citizen of the republic.
Rousseau represents a long western tradition extending back at least to Plato that prizes unity over plurality and is uneasy with the multiple overlapping spheres claiming the proximate loyalties of ordinary people everywhere. Indeed the major preoccupation in the modern age has been the establishment of uncontested sovereignty (often with an initial upper-case S), wherein one person or body possesses the final say, the last word—even in matters not generally given to the state. Thus Thomas Hobbes argued for the Sovereign's jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters. And while John Locke appears superficially more liberal and tolerant than his predecessor, he manages to weaken the church's authority by redefining it as “a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” Church as mere voluntary association is easily tamed by the state for its own purposes.
The purveyors of sovereignty have always seen themselves as in the vanguard of progress—curtailing the influence of the apparently more parochial and old-fashioned communities obstructing their liberating and homogenizing agenda. Nothing lies outside their transformative aspirations, even “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases” which many assume are still protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom. Senator Sanders is obviously heir to this ancient tradition of political monism.
However, there has long been a dissenting tradition more appreciative of the pluriformity of communities in which we are embedded and refraining from giving any one of them priority over the others. Some of its leading figures include Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Tocqueville, Leo XIII, Abraham Kuyper, and Sir Bernard Crick. A hallmark of this tradition is the recognition that the very distinctions the sovereigntists seek to obliterate are the ones we must maintain if we are to live together peacefully over the long term. As Crick puts it, politics necessitates the tolerance of different truths. This requires us to distinguish between ecclesiastical, political, and other forms of tolerance. No institutional church worth its salt will tolerate its clergy believing that Jesus was a mere prophet and not the second Person of the Trinity and Saviour of the world. On the other hand, the state—defined as the community of citizens led by their government—must draw the boundaries differently, asking from its office-holders, not confessional unity, but fidelity to the constitution and the laws.
More than two centuries ago, the American founders properly included Article IV, section 3 in the Constitution: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The mature articulation of such principles as subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty lay in the future, of course, but in adopting this provision the Constitution’s architects indicated that they understood that norms applicable in one sphere are not necessarily applicable in another. While a religious test obviously has relevance to the church, the synagogue, and the mosque, it should not be relevant to the state and other communities, which, notwithstanding Sanders’s opinion to the contrary, lack the normative competence to set confessional boundaries around citizenship and public office.
David Koyzis is fellow in politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology.