Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

A Few Thoughts About the Bernie Sanders Controversy

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote an impassioned explanation for my support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. As a Christian and vocational minister, I knew that public support for a Democratic-Socialist candidate for President would turn some heads.

And if it didn’t then, it certainly will now.

The recent controversy surrounding Bernie’s aggressive interrogation of Russell Vought during a Senate hearing has lit up the blogosphere. Thoughtful responses have appeared in places like The Atlantic, The Hill and the conservative Gospel Coalition. In my own social media circles, in particular, I’ve noticed many evangelical-types interpreting this situation as evidence of our society’s inevitable descent into a Godless-Socialist-Nightmare-State. 

As an outspoken Sanders supporter, I’d like offer a few thoughts.

Bernie Was Wrong

First, it’s important to understand (and admit) that Bernie made some key missteps in his rhetoric and understanding. And momentarily setting aside the political questions around the protection of religious expression in the Constitution, I think decoding his logic is important, because it’s actually very common in our increasingly pluralistic-globalist setting. 

Bernie re-framed a theological claim (the Muslims do not “know God” because they have rejected Jesus) as a socio-religious claim (that the Muslim faith is an inferior belief system to Christianity). This, then, was subtly re-framed a second time as an anthropological/ethnic claim (that those from majority-Muslim parts of the world are an inferior/backwards ethnic group), and these interpretive steps are all summed up in the racially-charged accusation of “Islamophobia,” which was leveled at Vought in the Senate hearing.

If you watch the footage of the conversation, it’s obvious that Bernie and Vought are at a communicative dead-end. One is asserting a theological claim rooted in his personal religious belief, and the other is pushing back on what he sees as a universalized anthropological claim about a group of people.

These are complicated issues, to be sure, but in short, Bernie was careless with his language. As a fan of his, and a Christian myself, I am disappointed. But I still think the exchange is illuminating for our cultural moment.

Evangelism, Politics, and our Complicated, Confusing Time

Though Bernie’s conduct has been widely critiqued, even from left-leaning news sources, because of his obvious use of an inappropriate religious “litmus-test” to attempt to disqualify Vought from public service, he nevertheless articulated a gut-level opposition to Christianity that is increasingly wide-spread and verging on conventional wisdom. And we Christians can take at least one important lesson from this.

A common piece of advice I give to friends and peers who are having communication difficulties is: “It doesn’t matter what you say; all that matters is what they hear.” The back-and-forth between Vought and Sanders is a clear case-in-point of this. In our current socio-political climate, any public condemnation of another religion, no matter how carefully spoken, will be heard as something along the lines of Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on gays and lesbians. You can feel the exasperation dripping from Bernie’s words as he keeps hammering Vought on his condemnatory language. I encounter this same exasperation weekly on the college campuses I frequent. It could be simply rephrased as, “You believe what?? You’re one of the people that are holding our society back!” or, in Bernie’s words, “you’re not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” 

If you haven’t been convinced yet, this event should serve as more evidence that we are living in the aftershock of the crumbling of American-Christian Civic Religion. As the edifice of our historically-majority-accepted religious practice continues to topple, those of us who wish to continue to present Christianity thoughtfully in the public square need to grapple with our language, being more concerned with what society hears, than even with our own ability to articulate doctrinal points which, until recently, were generally accepted.

This is all a good thing. Being forced to stop and reflect on how our society hears and understands us, as Christians, is profoundly healthy. Being forced to listen first, speak later, and offer compelling reason for belief puts us in good company. Paul, the great apostle and early Christian writer, put it best in his letter to the church at Colossi:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation always be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4.5-6