We read in the Qur’an the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, whom Muslims revere as a prophet of God. The king of Egypt has just released him from prison for interpreting the king’s dream in a way that saved the land from starvation. The king recognizes Joseph’s worth and seeks to bring him close to him. Seeing a chance to do good, Joseph asks the king to put him in charge of the treasury: “Indeed, I will be a knowing guardian” (Qur’an, Yusuf 12:55). And so the king gives him this authority. Both of them know well that Joseph follows a different religion from that of the polytheistic king. Indeed, Joseph proclaimed while he was still in prison:
Verily, I have abandoned the religion of a people that do not believe in God and are disbelievers in the Hereafter. And I have followed the religion of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and never could we worship anyone alongside God. (Qur’an, Yusuf 12:38)
These passages from the Qur’an describe men unapologetic about their religion and unsqueamish about conveying it, but whose differing visions of salvation do not stop them from finding common cause in seeking the public good. Had it been otherwise, Joseph would have had to conceal his beliefs, or Egypt would have been the worse for losing a qualified, well-meaning steward of its resources.
Several thousand years later, the founders of the United States established a similar arrangement for governing their new polity, setting forth in the Constitution that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Thus, in the words of a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, “The people may employ any wise or good citizen in the execution of the various duties of the government.” This provision was included over the protests of some New Englanders who, as James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1788, feared that “prohibiting religious tests opened a door for Jews Turks & infidels” to hold office. The purpose of the religious test clause was, as Madison wrote, to help protect the “rights of Conscience.”
How strange it is, then, that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is trying to block the nomination of Russell Vought, President Trump’s choice for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In Sanders’s eyes, Vought’s sin is writing an article supporting a Christian college’s decision to fire a professor for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Vought’s piece was no screed but a nuanced discussion of the centrality to the Christian creed of the belief that Jesus is God. In the passage Sanders finds most offensive, Vought writes that “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.”
I am a Muslim and thus obviously disagree with Vought that my theology is deficient. Rather, I believe his theology is deficient. I believe that Jesus is not God himself but a prophet of God, and I believe that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism. I worship, as Joseph did, the one and unitary God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the triune God of the Nicene Creed. I do not apologize for this belief.
Nor should Vought apologize for his. His statements were not crude bigotry, but a passionate defense of his creed entirely within the realm of discourse of reasonable, civilized men and women. America is a land incredibly rich in diverse cultures, religions, and shades of opinion. Mature adults, confident in the truth and reasonableness of their own beliefs, are capable of functioning, and indeed flourishing, alongside those who believe differently. No one enjoys hearing his deeply held religious beliefs contradicted or belittled, but demanding to be “safe” from hearing contrary opinions is simply bad citizenship.
To be sure, if a candidate for public office were found to be so strident in his beliefs as to render him incapable of discharging his duties impartially to the detriment of the public good, then such beliefs would certainly be relevant to the decision to appoint him. But that does not seem to be the case here. Taken out of context, and to the sensitive ear of those unaccustomed to religious discourse about absolute truths, Vought’s statement that Muslims are “condemned” sounds harsh. As noted, however, it was part of a broader theological argument. Nowhere does he conclude that Muslims should be hated or treated differently from non-Muslims.
Vought’s critics have accused him of “demonstrating a clear hostility to religious pluralism.” For them, this supposed “hostility” lies in Vought’s assertion that his own religious beliefs are true and that others’ are false. On the contrary, it is his critics who are hostile to religious pluralism. They do not simply object to the way he expressed himself, but to the fact that he expressed himself. They seek to allow in the public square only those who believe as they do: that all religious beliefs are equally true. The notion that all beliefs are true, otherwise known as relativism or postmodernism, is of course a creed in its own right, holding that nothing is objectively true or false, and that there is no absolute right or wrong. Requiring all government officeholders to be relativists is precisely the opposite of what was intended by the framers of the Constitution.
The obvious irony is that if this were the case, Muslims themselves would be banned from public office—at least if “Muslim” means a believer in a religion rather than simply a member of an amorphous identity group. The Qur’an states: “And whoever desires other than Islam as a religion, never will it be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers” (Qur’an, Ali ‘Imran 3:85). This verse is as far from relativism as Vought’s comments that Muslims are condemned. Thus, any Muslim unwilling to repudiate the belief that Islam is objectively true and that other religions are, at least in critical respects, objectively false, would be unqualified to serve under Bernie’s relativism test.
It also follows that any Muslims objecting to Vought’s appointment must either admit they don’t believe Islam is objectively true, admit they’re employing a double standard, or drop their objection to the appointment. The corollary to this, of course, is that any non-Muslims objecting to a Muslim’s appointment to public office merely on the basis of his religious beliefs are in precisely the same position. As James Madison wrote, the No Religious Test Clause means “Jews Turks & infidels” are free to serve in government. So long as a Muslim candidate for public service is qualified for office, the fact that he or she is an unapologetic Muslim can be no grounds for objecting to the appointment. Anyone who says otherwise while opposing Bernie’s test must either admit his bad faith or repudiate the Constitution.
I am inclined to think that Bernie Sanders and his allies mean well in opposing Vought’s nomination. They want to protect the feelings of members of a religious minority that has come under fire from many quarters. That sentiment is admirable and appreciated, but misguided. Bernie needs to realize that Muslims in America are more adult, and have more confidence in themselves and in the truth of their faith, than one might imagine. More importantly, by bending the Constitution in the name of pluralism to require relativism from all holders of public office, the institution of such a test would constitute a loss for Muslims and all religious believers in the long run.
Ismail Royer is a Program Assistant at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @_IsmailRoyer.