WASHINGTON – It is apparently not enough for some of the liberal minded to help those on Medicare and Social Security; now people must be guaranteed eligibility for heaven as well. Or at least be protected from those who believe in the other place.
At a contentious confirmation hearing last week for Russell Vought as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget – generally not known as an institution with theological job requirements – Sen. Bernie Sanders took vigorous exception to an online post Vought had written claiming that Muslims (and, presumably, others) who “have rejected Jesus Christ” therefore “stand condemned.”
Sanders found this “indefensible” and “hateful.” But at least when it comes to a belief in hell, Vought is hardly a rarity. Universalism is not universal. According to recent Pew polling, about 80 percent of evangelical Protestants believe in hell, along with 76 percent of Muslims and 63 percent of Catholics. Even 27 percent of those who identify as “nones” – the religiously unaffiliated – retain a belief in hell. And then there is that forlorn 1 percent who don’t believe in God at all but still believe in hell. Perhaps they are with Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.”
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Not every religious tradition features eternal damnation. The Hebrew Scriptures have only the faintest hints about an afterlife of any kind. So it makes sense that Jews reject the existence of hell by an 80/20 split. In Hinduism and Buddhism, hell is more of a way station than a final destination. But traditional interpretations of Christianity and of Islam feature a day of final judgment, at which some people don’t make the grade.
For a lot of people, hell is little more than a mental holding place for Hitler. If you believe in an afterlife, the question naturally arises: Can saints and genocidaires really share the same eternal fate? But the argument cuts the other way. As it occurred to evangelical pastor Rob Bell: “Gandhi’s in hell?” Bell went on to write a book – “Love Wins” – that embraced universalism and got him branded unorthodox and worse.
Bell is not alone in trying to blunt this particular religious edge. Christian history is studded with figures who expressed a universally inclusive notion of grace, such as 17th-century poet and pastor John Donne: “Christ hath excommunicated no Nation, no shire, no house, no man.” Even defenders of the idea of hell such as C.S. Lewis felt compelled to soften the concept. Lewis’ literary depiction of hell is not a lake of fire but a gray suburb in which it is always raining and nothing is satisfying and everyone quarrels with the neighbors. For Lewis, hell is eternally self-chosen by those consumed by egotism. “The doors of hell,” he said, “are locked from the inside.”
In all the complexities of theology and metaphysics that this topic raises, I am utterly confident of one thing: No one has ever asked, “What is Bernie Sanders’ view on this?” But he has offered it. In justifying his opposition to Vought, Sanders said: “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms. … We must not go backwards.” Thus liberal fairness is applied on a cosmic scale. Ending theological bias is the final civil rights frontier. Equal salvation for all.
Perhaps Sanders was just meaning to deny a government job to someone whose theology he finds objectionable. Which is not only presumptuous but unconstitutional (see Article VI). The same would be true in the case of a Muslim nominee or anyone else willing to serve the country and uphold the Constitution. A pluralism too weak to protect Christian believers is too weak to protect Muslim believers, and vice versa. And both have the right to think they are right.
A few questions for the senator: Does he really want to begin examining Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians and everyone else for theological beliefs that offend his ideal of liberalism? How strongly does a belief need to be held to be disqualifying for employment? Would he permit a Christian colleague to shoot down a government job seeker if that man or woman believed that the universe is an echoing void and that human beings are merely bags of chemicals?
But, on second thought, never mind about these questions. Thanks to the Constitution, we aren’t required to give a damn what Sanders thinks about the religious views of any American.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.