Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist presidential wannabee clashed publicly with an evangelical graduate of Wheaton College over Christianity’s unique claim of salvation.
Wheaton alumnus Russell Vought, President Donald Trump’s pick for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, found himself in the cross hairs of Sanders for his Christian convictions when Vought opposed a Muslim woman Larycia Hawkins for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims during Advent last year, a story that made national headlines.
Sanders accused Vought of being Islamophobic and making statements that are “indefensible” and “hateful.” Christian observers believed the senator was applying a religious test to make an orthodox evangelical unfit for office.
Sanders homed in on Vought’s understanding of salvation and his belief that salvation is only secured through Christ.
“I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. I really don’t know, probably a couple million. Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?” demanded Sanders, himself a secular Jew. “I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have 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?”
Evangelicals affirm salvation through faith in Christ alone. This principle is the basis of everything they believe. It comes up in three out of four measures that the National Association of Evangelicals uses to label evangelicals: salvation through Christ alone; his death as the only way to remove sin; the importance of encouraging non-Christians to trust him as Savior.
“Even if one were to excuse Senator Sanders for not realizing that all Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation, it is inconceivable that Senator Sanders would cite religious beliefs as disqualifying an individual for public office,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
As Vought stated during his hearing, “I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.”
Yet, these distinctive beliefs—and any claim of exclusive salvation—are increasingly viewed as offensive or problematic. In America’s pluralist landscape, even Christians are shifting away from such views.
“When it comes to religion, the word exclusive is synonymous with bigot. Even worse, Christians who communicate the exclusivity of their faith are castigated and dismissed,” wrote John C. Richards, who directs the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton.
According to a LifeWay Research survey conducted last year, only half of Americans agree that eternal salvation only comes to those who trust Christ alone. Earlier research from LifeWay found that Protestant pastors (77%) are far more likely than their congregants (48%) to oppose the idea that people can obtain eternal life through other faiths.
Still, a 2013 YouGov poll found just 3 percent of the population believes in universal salvation, that all people will go to heaven. A plurality (33%) believe that “some” will to go heaven, yet most don’t make distinctions on religious lines. Instead, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that people who don’t follow the same faith as they do will still make it to heaven.
Sanders’s line of questioning was different than the initial debate launched by the Wheaton-Hawkins situation, which focused on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (Americans are evenly split.) Instead, Sanders pushed back against a principle that is not up for debate within the realm of Christian orthodoxy.