The Problem is Not Just Sanders

In this July 18, 2015, file photo, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

By George Yancey Published on June 18, 2017

Let’s play with our imagination. Let’s pretend that our president is a Democrat, and that Senator Ted Cruz sits on a committee deciding whether to approve a mid-level appointee for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The candidate is known to be a Muslim. Suppose the discussion went like this:

Cruz: So now I want to turn to an article you wrote in a Muslim magazine. You wrote that Sharia law is the best way for us all to live. Do you believe everyone should live under Sharia law?

Candidate: Senator, you understand that I was writing in the middle of a theological debate among Muslims.

Cruz: So do you think all of us who do not live under Sharia law are wrong? Do you see God turning away from us because we are not living under Sharia?

Candidate: Senator I am a Muslim, and …

Cruz: I am sorry, but I have limited time. Please just answer the question. Should everyone live under Sharia law?

Candidate: Senator, I am a Muslim, and that comment was in the context of…

Cruz: Once again, I am sorry, but I have limited time, and you do not seem to want to answer the question. Let me just say that I find it awful that you seem to think that you should decide how everyone should live. We are a country of many faiths. People who think like you are not fit for this government position, so I will be voting no.

Sounds Shocking

Sounds shocking, doesn’t it? You may find it impossible to imagine that exchange happening, but suppose it did? What do you think would ensue?

Of course Cruz would be attacked as Islamophobic. I would agree with his critics. But we know that it could never happen, because (among other things) Cruz understands the rules of the social world he lives in. He knows that such displays of religious bigotry are simply not acceptable.

Of course this brings us to the case of Senator Bernie Sanders, and his dressing down of Russell Vought, which has been rightly been called a wrongful application of a religious test for office. In a hearing for Vought’s appointment as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sanders attacked Vought’s Christian belief that Christ is the only way to heaven. He has rightly been taken to task by several conservative writers, and even some progressives.

An Anti-Christian Subculture

I could pile on Sander’s religious intolerance along with the other pundits, but I think we are missing the larger picture. Ask yourself why Cruz would never do my hypothetical interrogation, whereas Sanders felt free to question the faith of a believing Christian. (And Senator Chris Van Hollins felt free to correct Vought concerning the proper expression of that faith).

It isn’t because Cruz is less zealous as a conservative than Sanders is as a progressive. It isn’t because Cruz is more tolerant than Sanders. Cruz is known for being combative. Still we all know Cruz would not conduct this type of questioning.

Sanders’ many critics may have focused too much on him, and missed the larger context. He could never even have thought of making these anti-Christian criticisms, were he not living in a subculture that supports them. My research on this subject shows that higher educated, wealthy, nonreligious progressives — members of the culture in which Sanders generally lives — are the ones most likely to show hostility toward Christian faith. Sanders may or may not have that hostility himself, but the culture he is in supports it. And it gave him social (if not legal) permission to use this religious test.

Cruz, on the other hand, doesn’t live in an atmosphere of anti-Muslim sentiment. Hostility toward Islam is a problem, but my research shows that those with it tend to be lower educated, and thus less commonly found among the nation’s elite. Cruz might (and probably does) have ethical reasons for not attacking Islam, but even if he didn’t, he doesn’t live in a social atmosphere that supports that kind of attitude. Thus he could never feel free to make such an attack.

And this is the major point that needs to be made. It isn’t enough to deal with individuals who feel hostile toward Christian believers. We must also deal with the atmosphere that creates that attitude — and which allows bigoted statements such as those spoken by Sanders.

Race scholars have recognized this for quite a while. Christianophobia is not exactly like racism, to be sure. Bigotry does not happen in isolation, however. It occurs where there is a subculture that supports it. Not every white in the Jim Crow South was a racist. Many simply used the South’s rampant racism to their advantage, perhaps by cheating blacks, or by telling racist jokes to curry favor with others. We did not need all southern whites to be racist for racism to be a problem there.

Poisonous Christianophobia

Likewise Christianophobia has poisoned certain American subcultures; and again, this does not mean that anybody who engages in hostile actions toward the faith actually hates Christians. It does mean that there are social blinders that permit actions such as a senator imposing a religious test for office. Our larger focus needs to be less on what Sanders did, and more on the community that supports this type of religious intolerance.

Some Christians feel less than comfortable with the idea of institutional racism. I suggest they may want to consider what they can learn from it instead. It affects more than individual actions, but social structures as well. Hostile attitudes toward Christian faith operate in a similar fashion. Christians also must be wise about how Christianophobia corrupts social values and institutions to promote religious intolerance. We can use this incident with Sanders to think beyond an individual action, and engage the larger social attitude that allowed it.

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