Saturday, June 10, 2017

Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  At a recent confirmation hearing Senator Bernie Sanders questioned a statement by Russell Voight, nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.  Voight said that “Muslims…do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

            Senator Sanders condemned Voight’s statement as Islamophobic.  Ironically, such religious exclusivity is typical of fundamentalist Muslims as well as Christians.  Fundamentalists of both religions believe that theirs alone is the one true faith and that God condemns all others to eternal damnation.  In a religiously pluralistic culture like the U.S., religious fundamentalists holding such exclusivist beliefs are unsuited for public office.

            In a politics polarized by competing religious and political beliefs, providing equal justice under law is impossible if public officials of one religion believe that God has condemned all others to eternal damnation.  Most Americans claim to be Christians, but it is unknown how many are fundamentalists.  Perhaps there should be a political test for public officials to ensure that they do not believe that anyone is condemned because of their religious beliefs—or unbelief.

            It is axiomatic that public officials must avoid unlawful discrimination to provide equal justice under law, and that religious exclusivity is likely to produce such discrimination.  While a person’s religious belief should not be a test to qualify for political office, any belief likely to cause unlawful discrimination should be a relevant political consideration in considering whether a person should hold public office.

           Religion has moral and mystical components.  Thomas Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus “the sublimest morality ever taught” and relevant to our politics.  But Jefferson considered the mystical and exclusivist doctrines promoted by the church as irrelevant and inappropriate to our politics.  Religious exclusivity crosses the line.  It is a mystical matter of faith that has moral implications that are relevant to our politics.
            The greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—including those of other races and religions—combines the mystical and moral.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike; and if those believers were to give that common word of faith precedence over exclusivist religious beliefs, there could be a universal politics of reconciliation that could lead to lasting peace with justice—but not until then.

Notes and Related Commentary:

On Bernie Sanders’ religious test for Christians in public office, see

Thomas Jefferson wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man."  Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379.  See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2, posted at

On the Greatest Commandment as a common word of faith, see 

On whether there is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims today, see

On religious fundamentalism and a politics of reconciliation, see


  1. Like you, I deplore beliefs like Voight's. But I don't see how those beliefs would **necessarily** lead to discrimination. It's possible to believe simultaneously that someone is religiously condemned and has equal civil rights as those who are not condemned. In fact, the Puritans assumed that most people, including most of them, would be damned, yet they took crucial steps toward liberal self-governance.

    The test should be to examine the specific policies and actions the official takes. Do they discriminate in their application of the law? If so, then they should be disqualified from office. Applying that test would sweep away many officeholders, fundamentalist and otherwise.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jon. I believe that it is possible for a fundamentalist holding exclusivist religious beliefs to act impartially toward unbelievers, but I think it more likely that they would discriminate against them. The most considerate would probably try to convert unbelievers as an act of love so that they would not be consigned to hell.
    I don't think that exclusivist beliefs alone should be grounds for removing someone from office--for that there should be evidence of discrimination--but like Bernie Sanders, I believe fundamentalist exclusivist beliefs can be grounds for not confirming someone like Voight for high office where impartiality is critical.

  3. This* reporting in the New York Times about the religious left should encourage you, given your earlier posts expressing concern about how Trump-voting evangelicals have debased and distorted Christian morality. That's exactly William Barber's point. I'm surprised you haven't discussed him before, given his high-profile efforts to encourage people across many faiths to call for policies that would align with the teachings of Jesus to help the poor (i.e., his "sublime moral teachings"). In light of this most recent post, it's fitting to see that a Trump-supporting pastor in NC is willing to suggest that Rev. Barber is an atheist--basically to say that he fails the religious test whereby true Christians are known by their Republican voting patterns. Apart from that irony, though, this is an article that suggests your ideas are shared by many believers out there.


  4. Thanks for sending the NYTimes article on Rev. Dr. Barber and other progressive Christians who are becoming more active in politics. I am impressed by Barber, but when I last read about him he was head of the N.C. NAACP and leading N.C. Democrats in the gubernatorial race. The article indicates he is less partisan and socialist than I thought him to be. I consider myself a moderate conservative with a commitment to balance our individual rights with providing for the common good.
    The article goes on to note the diversity among Christians opposed to Trump (from traditional liberals like Barber to political conservatives like me) contrasted with the unity of fundamentalist evangelicals who support Trump and are loyal to the GOP.
    Diversity can be a strength rather than a weakness so long as we share the teachings of Jesus as the "moral center" of our faith and politics. Trump and his GOP minions are the antithesis the altruistic teachings of Jesus, and that's a powerful motivating force to bring us together.

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