Sanders Comments: A Christian "Straw Man" Erected and Attacked
On June 7th, Bernie Sanders castigated a Trump nominee, Russell Vought, for a blog post that Vought wrote when a controversy erupted in 2016 at his alma mater, Wheaton College, a conservative Christian college. Vought had written to support the decision of the college to terminate one of its professors who was expressing that the “gods” of the Muslim faith and the Christian faith were one and the same. The professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, was terminated because of her divergence from the doctrinal position of this private, Christian college that supports “Christian exceptionalism” or the notion that Jesus Christ is the only way to be in relationship with God. Did Sanders’s comments accurately portray the disposition of Christians towards those who reject Jesus Christ? In this blog post, I am not writing to “slime” Sanders or to vindicate Vought for his words he typed on a blog page in 2016. Rather, I see in Sanders words, a recent media/cultural trend to misrepresent the position of Christianity on any number of issues (also known as a “straw man” fallacy). After investigating Vought’s post, Sanders comments, and relevant Biblical texts, I have come to the conclusion that Sanders does misrepresent the disposition of Christians towards those of other faiths as Christians themselves do not condemn Muslims or any other religious group. In his remarks, Sanders has erected a “straw man” and then attacked it.
In order to build a foundation for my thesis, I looked up Russell Vought’s original post. As mentioned above Vought is an alumnus of Wheaton College and posted in support of the college after Hawkins expressed a heterodox position on the unity of the Muslim and Christian gods all the while insulting the college administration. In his comments, Vought makes a good case for defending the orthodox Christian statement of faith of Wheaton College. It is cogent, well reasoned and is based upon the words of Jesus in the New Testament that testify that he is the only access point to God (John 14:6). Vought believes the words of Jesus Christ are true and so holds to “Christian exceptionalism.” Even though not a theologian, Vought, a conservative voice in the GOP, ably explained the New Testament position of Jesus Christ as the only Son of God and that those who reject Jesus Christ “stand condemned.” Vought was relying on John 3:18 when using this phrase. He also explained why Hawkins’s position undermined and presented a serious challenge to proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation through the name of Jesus Christ. A link leading to Vought’s original post is included below):
Wheaton College and the Preservation of Theological Clarity
In Vought’s June 7 confirmation hearing, Sanders attacked Vought for writing that Muslims are condemned already before God. During the back and forth of the dialogue between Vought and Sanders, Sanders asks if the aforementioned view that Muslims “stand condemned” is “Islamaphobic.” After Vought denies Sanders’s accusation, Sanders went to the core of his animus towards Vought. Sanders mentioned that there are several million people who are Muslim Americans and that Vought’s condemnation of those Americans who are not Christians is disrespectful. Sanders ends his comments by, in essence, saying that Vought should be disqualified from government service because of his Christian belief that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ which puts him into conflict with those of other religions.
A brief examination of Scripture is needed to see if Sanders is in fact correct about his view that Christians condemn people of other faiths. This seems to be Sanders real beef with Vought; he believes that Vought condemns Muslims. But does the Bible ever describe Christians as standing in judgment over non-Christians? In traditional Christian doctrine, who is the one who judges all people, to include all people who call themselves Christians? The New Testament affirms that Jesus Christ is the one who either will accept or reject all persons regardless of labels. Jesus Christ states that no one else comes to God the Father except through him (John 14:6). He gives this answer in response to a question from Thomas about how the disciples can follow after Him to heaven when Jesus leaves the earth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also tells the parable of the wheat and the tares (13:24-30). After telling this parable, he explains that he is the one who separates the wheat from the weeds. Furthermore, he passes judgment on those who are worthy of punishment and also on those who are righteous (13:36-43). Later on in Matthew, Jesus teaches that He is the one who separates the sheep from the goats (25:31-46). In this passage, Jesus is the one who determines who is rejected and who is accepted by God. In John’s Gospel (10:9), Jesus speaks of himself as the gate to the sheepfold (heaven) and that he is the one who allows entry into it. So, Jesus states again and again that he alone is the one who condemns those who are unjust and approves those who are righteous. Moreover, in John’s apocalypse, he shares that Jesus alone is the one who grants entry into the “New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:27).
After a brief survey of the New Testament, it is observed that Jesus Christ alone is the one who selects those who are deserving of eternal punishment and also eternal reward. As God incarnate, Jesus is the only one who grants access to God the Father and also access to heaven. There is no mention in the New Testament of a follower of Jesus Christ being qualified to render eternal judgment/condemnation on any other person. So, when Vought speaks of Muslims as “standing condemned,” it is Jesus alone who renders this judgment, not Vought or any other Christian. Moreover, Paul explicitly instructs all to be wary of judging another person and that the office of Eternal Judge is reserved for God alone (Romans 2:1-10).
If the New Testament teaches that Jesus alone is the sole arbiter of eternal perdition/reward, then what does the New Testament teach about how a Christian should treat others who are not Christians? In short, the answer is “with love.” Jesus mentions that all should love their neighbor as themselves (Luke 10:27b). When being queried about who should be considered a neighbor, Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan as an answer to this question (Luke 10). In giving this parable as a response, Jesus further teaches that the Samaritan is one who has been a good neighbor rendering aid to one who is suffering. The Samaritan’s love practically expressed to aid someone in distress from another faith tradition is instructive about how Christians (or for that matter anyone) should treat others different than themselves. In addition to Jesus’s words on loving your neighbor as yourself, Jesus makes another emphatic statement that this love extends to enemies as well. If someone is your foe, then you should love this person all the more than someone who is your friend (Matthew 5:44, 46). In addition to Jesus words, Paul also tells us the importance of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Without love, you might as well hang up any attempt at Christian piety (vv. 2-3).
As one who lived a perfect life, Jesus’s ministry was filled with an ethic of love that extended to others that were believed to be “less than.” Jesus made sure to visit and share with the Samaritans, a group believed by pious Jews to be “beneath them.” He also dined with tax collectors who were despised by segments of the Jewish population (Matt. 9:10-11). Along with these examples of reaching out to those of lower social status, Jesus also protected a woman who was caught in adultery that was facing sure death (John 8) and even forgave a man of his crimes/sins as he hung on the cross (Luke 23:43). Jesus Christ was continually serving humanity (showing love to others) while he ministered on earth. In his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ not only teaches us to love others, but also modeled a benevolent, selfless love.
Jacopo da Ponte – The Good Thief on the Cross, 16th Century- Public Domain
Hearkening back to Sanders’s disapproval of John 3:18 (standing condemned), I find it quite interesting that just two verses before this passage is the best known of all Bible verses that clearly proclaims the disposition of Jesus towards “the world.” God so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ to it that all may attain eternal life through relationship with him (v. 16). Moreover, 3:17 states that Jesus was sent not for the purpose of condemning anyone but rather to enable all to attain eternal life. It is only because of their rejection of God’s provision of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ that any are condemned (v. 18) and as stated before, only Jesus Christ is the one who pronounces judgment on any person.
After briefly examining New Testament Scripture relating to who renders final judgment upon humans and what the teaching of the New Testament is about the disposition of Christians towards all persons, it is clear that Sanders is in error when he insinuated that Vought, a Christian, condemned Muslims himself. After reading Vought’s words, it is obvious that Vought was merely referring to a New Testament passage (John 3:18) that spoke of condemnation from God for those who reject Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the clear message of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ/God is the only one who judges every person regardless of his or her label. In regards to an individual Christian, the prime responsibility of any Christian towards any other person is to love them and not condemn them. Furthermore, rendering judgment against another person is expressly prohibited in the New Testament (Rom. 2).
In addition to the error found in Sanders’s denunciation of Vought, there is one more aspect of Sanders comments that is troubling to me. It is the fact that Sanders seems to miss the anti-Christian bigotry of his words. Even as Sanders unjustly accuses Vought of condemning Muslims, Sanders doesn’t seem to recognize the fact that he has not only unfairly accused Vought, but he also indirectly casts an aspersion on all Christians who believe that the New Testament is the inspired word of God. He condemns all Christians for believing that Jesus Christ alone is God Incarnate. Just because Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God exclusively, with no other rival god, does not mean that Christians will unfairly treat any other person because of their religious affiliation. So, Sanders, in effect does what he criticizes Vought for. He condemns a people group for their beliefs.
In conclusion, Sanders commits a logical fallacy (erecting a straw man) when criticizing Vought’s use of John 3:18. The only person who renders eternal judgment according to Christian doctrine is Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the main disposition of a Christian (to include Vought) towards any other person regardless of their label or religious affiliation is simply to love them. This does not mean that a Christian accepts any beliefs or actions of persons opposed to the orthodox Christian perspective. Rather, in spite of the actions or beliefs that a person may hold in opposition to Christianity, Christians are charged to love others regardless of their label without accepting as legitimate any heterodox beliefs/actions.
Before launching an attack against any person, Sanders would be better served to conduct a more thorough investigation before condemning another person or group. If he were to do this, then maybe he would not rush so quickly to an unfair and harsh judgment. This sort of misrepresentation of Christian beliefs and anti-Christian bigotry is becoming more prevalent in the media today. Unfortunately, history tells us that if an untruth is repeated enough, then many will view repeated inaccuracies or misrepresentations as facts. However, I am still hopeful that in the future, instead of superficial research on important issues, politicians and journalists will conduct more thoughtful and thorough investigations instead of racing to get out a provocative sound bite or a fiery piece of rhetoric. We all owe each other the courtesy of giving any matter of import a complete go-over before making serious and public accusations.