Vatican II, Freedom of Religion, and the Senate Budget Committee

June 11, 2017

Dignitatis Humanae [1], Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, declared “that the human person has a right to religious freedom,” and that this “freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (Sec. 2) Since this “right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself,” the “right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.” (Sec. 2)

This freedom isn’t to be recognized because human beings have some sort of right to be wrong. Rather it is because a person cannot properly respond to truth except in freedom. The “right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.” (Sec. 2)

The United States Constitution establishes a similar freedom of religion, albeit on the basis of different considerations. Not only are there the First Amendment protections of freedom of religion and the prohibition against governmental establishment of religion [2], there is also the Article VI provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” [3] 

But while the Constitution may not allow religious tests for public office, it seems the prohibition doesn’t quite reach the conduct of an individual Senator questioning a nominee for such an office.

This past Wednesday Russell Vought, President Trump’s nomination for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, appeared before the Senate Budget Committee for a confirmation hearing. [4] Senator Bernie Sanders, recently a candidate for president, and a member of the committee, was concerned about a post Mr. Vought had published in January of last year on the conservative site, The Resurgent. [5]

It seems that Mr. Vought’s alma mater, the Evangelical school Wheaton College, was embroiled in a controversy over termination proceedings being brought against a faculty member who had said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Apparently, this statement conflicted with the college’s Statement of Faith. Mr. Vought wrote in defense of the college’s actions against the faculty member.

He took issue with the faculty member’s claim that one could know God without a belief in Jesus. To say so, Mr. Vought said, is fundamentally problematic. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology,” he wrote. “They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

Catholics, of course, have a more nuanced view of who does or does not end up in heaven, and most of us would be uncomfortable making such blanket statements about who will fail to attain salvation. But Mr. Vought’s remarks are pretty standard Evangelical theology. There are a lot of people who hold to it.

It should be noted here that when Mr. Vought said of Muslims that they “stand condemned,” he wasn’t talking about visiting any evils upon them in the form of warfare or even civil disabilities. He wasn’t calling for a persecution. He was simply saying that Muslims cannot attain salvation as long as they are Muslims. He was speaking solely about the afterlife. And he holds that belief pursuant to his religion. 

But Mr. Sanders got a hold of the post and found himself appalled at Mr. Vought’s theology. As a result, the following exchange took place between Messrs. Sanders and Vought at the confirmation hearing:

“Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, ‘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.’ Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

“Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . . 

“Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

“Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

“Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

“Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . . 

“Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned? 

“Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. 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 your statement that you put into that publication, 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?

“Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation. 

“Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” [6] [7]

Mr. Sander’s concluding remark essentially says that Evangelical Christians don’t belong in public office. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says that access to public office should come without the requisite of a religious test. How is all this to be evaluated in light of Dignitatis Humanae? The following language from the document is critical to making the evaluation:

“Since the common welfare of society consists in the entirety of those conditions of social life under which men enjoy the possibility of achieving their own perfection in a certain fullness of measure and also with some relative ease, it chiefly consists in the protection of the rights, and in the performance of the duties, of the human person. Therefore the care of the right to religious freedom devolves upon the whole citizenry, upon social groups, upon government, and upon the Church and other religious communities, in virtue of the duty of all toward the common welfare, and in the manner proper to each.

“The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government. Therefore government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.

“Government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and also in order that society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men’s faithfulness to God and to His holy will.

“If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.

“Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens.

“It follows that a wrong is done when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or when it hinders men from joining or leaving a religious community. All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community.” (Sec. 6)

Religious freedom, according to Dignitatis Humanae, is critical to human development, and thus is intrinsic to the common welfare of society. Its benefits are sufficiently general so as to make it a duty of government to safeguard it, and to create conditions favorable to the fostering of religion. It is to be expected that society will gain from the general morality thus engendered. 

Therefore, society’s openness to religious freedom must be genuine. It is insufficient to declare it on paper, while finding covert means to thwart it in practice. Even in circumstances where there is a state recognized religious establishment, the practice of religion should be completely free of coercion, and this governmental abstention should be coupled with a recognition of the equality of all before the law.  

Unfortunately, Senator Sanders did not manifest anything close to this belief. On the contrary, he found Mr. Vought’s religious views on salvation offensive, and concluded from them that Mr. Vought is not fit for public service. In so doing, he necessarily included within that judgment anyone who holds that salvation in the afterlife is not necessarily universal, which includes a great many religious people, including Catholics, many Jews, and, for that matter, Muslims. It will avail Mr. Sanders nothing to indulge in the non sequitur that he was concerned about the treatment Muslims would receive at Mr. Vought’s hands, because he didn’t ask Mr. Vought anything about that. He inquired into his religious beliefs only.

Of course, Mr. Sanders was not proposing that Mr. Vought should be denied the right to practice his religion as such. But he was saying that a person with Mr. Vought’s religious beliefs is unfit for public office. If Mr. Sanders has his way, people who share the same beliefs as Mr. Vought will not attain to high-ranking positions in the United States government, and that will having a chilling effect on people espousing such beliefs or declaring them openly. Governmental coercion as to religious belief will have entered in to the extent that certain beliefs will serve as disqualifiers for high-level government service. This will certainly be the case with respect to believers in Evangelical Christianity.

There are some who dislike Evangelical Christianity who will applaud Mr. Sanders for this behavior. They should not do that. If disabilities can be imposed upon the adherents of one religion they can be imposed on followers of other faiths. Or they can be imposed on those who have no religion at all, and for that reason. Elections could become periodic determinations about which groups were going to be suppressed until the next election. Most importantly, the free development and inquiry so important to the religious quest will hindered, as people will have to worry about what disqualifications might be imposed on them for embracing a religion not enjoying government favor.

Catholics have been a disfavored religion in the United States. Therefore, Catholics should understand this as well as anyone else.

Jack Quirk