Our biggest problem

I've just had a fascinating experience which, while not surprising, kind of sums up what is probably our biggest problem in America today.

Last night I posted a properly indignant article about a bizarre exchange between President Trump's nominee for Assistant Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sen. Sanders brought up a magazine article which Vought wrote years ago defending the right of his alma mater, Wheaton College, to hold an institutionally negative view of Islam- one considerably less negative, it should be said, than the view the Koran takes of Christianity. Wheaton College is, after all, a Christian institution, and orthodox Christianity has taught something Jesus Himself clearly and repeatedly taught pretty much ever since He taught it: that the entire human race stands condemned before God because of sin, but that nobody need personally experience that condemnation because God has provided  an escape from it through faith in Jesus, and only through faith in Jesus.

It is not necessary that anyone like that teaching. Frankly, I don't like it myself. As grateful as I am for the prospect of receiving a mercy I don't deserve for Jesus' sake, I have too many Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist and even agnostic and atheist friends about whom I care deeply not to hate the implication of that teaching for them: that those who reject Christ thereby exclude themselves from the mercy He offers. But it's what Jesus taught, and it's what the Faith has affirmed down through the ages. I cannot honestly reject it and remain a Christian and with due respect to the consciences of Christians who think otherwise I cannot help but see Christians who reject it as being intellectually dishonest by doing so yet claiming to recognize the authority of Christ and the Scriptures. I myself hope for as many loopholes and exceptions and codicils which have not been revealed to us as possible, and there are some that I privately almost expect to exist but I have no adequate basis for actually affirming

I would add that I would be extremely suspicious of any religion which I did find completely congenial. I would take that fact as prima facie evidence that its god was one I had created in my own image, rather than the other way around.

There is a term for the teaching about the way in which salvation is obtained according to the Christian faith: the Gospel. It comprises the heart and core of the Christian religion.

The article Vought wrote addressed  that fact specifically as it relates to Islam. He explained why Wheaton was bound by its own religious understanding to view a belief system which precluded faith in Christ in a negative light.

I want to pause at this point to say that two magazines, one liberal and one conservative, The Atlantic and the National Review- each promptly published thoughtful pieces examining the trainwreck which resulted from the conclusions Sen. Sanders wrongly drew from what Vought had written. Each did a commendable job, from its own perspective, in pointing out that throughout their heated exchange Sen. Sanders and Mr. Voight were talking past one another.

Christianity does not teach that Jews or Muslims or any other group of people as such are excluded from the Kingdom of God. It teaches that only through faith in Christ is one included in it. That is a very different assertion even though it leads to the same result. What is involved here is not a negative statement about other religions but a positive assertion about Christianity. It requires nobody (except Christians) to believe it, and there has always been a minority of Christians who do not despite the clarity and repetition of the teaching by Jesus as the Evangelists record His words and by St. Paul have qualified or even rejected it.

But it has always been a central assertion of the Christian faith and recognized pretty much universally (until a century or so ago, when Roman Catholicism began backing away from it) as a basic one.  And it was that teaching, and only that teaching, which Russell Vought affirmed in his magazine article, and which formed the basis of Sen. Sanders' conclusion that doing so disqualified him from holding public office.

The issue here is that whether Sen. Sanders understood himself to be doing so or not (and I personally believe that he did not), he was establishing a religious test contrary to Article VI of the Constitution and disqualifying Mr. Vought from the position to which the president has appointed him solely because he is an orthodox Christian.

Now, this morning a Facebook friend on the Left- a professing Christian, it should be said- claimed that Sen. Sanders had done no such thing and merely objected to Mr. Vought's willingness to deny Muslims (and presumably others) their legal rights because of his own "exclusivist" beliefs. But there is nothing to suggest such an unwillingness. Literally nothing at all.

There was only Vought's insistence that a Christian college has a right under the First Amendment to conduct its internal business according to the tenets of the Christian faith, and that he himself has a right to believe his own religion. This, Sen. Sanders (and also Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Christian who belongs to a denomination not exactly notorious for its orthodoxy and presently under suspension from the Anglican Communion for that reason) failed to see because they were not sufficiently informed about the beliefs of historic Christianity and their implications, and despite Mr. Vought's futile attempt to explain them, an attempt which Sen. Sanders testily cut off.

The confusion of the Left (as well as some of the Right) about the historic and constitutional nature and application of the separation of church and state and the First Amendment is a serious enough problem; it's worth noting that if the same tests were applied at the time which "progressives" now apply to the secular arguments only based on religious objections to abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, had been applied to the Abolitionist movement or the Civil Rights movement, both would have been regarded as unconstitutional attempts to impose the religious beliefs of devout Christians on those who did not share them. But behind this lies an even more basic problem.

We're not listening to each other. When we speak, we do what my Facebook friend did, and continues to do despite being provided with both a transcript of the conversation between Sen. Sanders and Vought and a video of it: we hear, not what is actually being said, but what our own prejudices and presuppositions lead us to believe the other person actually means.

That's what my Facebook friend persists in doing, even when confronted with the fact that The Atlantic disagrees with him. That is what Bernie Sanders did with regard to Russell Vought. And that's what all of us, whether we be liberals or conservatives, more often than not do to each other. We need to be aware of it and to make a conscious effort to stop.

Our system and even our society are falling apart from a lack of a willingness on just about everybody's part to ask not what the other person words mean to us, but what they mean to them. People have a right to define their own beliefs. None of us has the right to impose an alien belief on somebody else. But neither does anyone have the right to misrepresent the beliefs of anyone else because they've been so deafened by all the shouting that they can't hear them.



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