Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Try to imagine the media storm if the following drama ever took place under the hot glare of television lights in a U.S. Senate hearing.

So a Muslim believer who has been nominated for a cabinet-level post is taking questions. A Bible Belt senator asks: "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Or perhaps a senator from a New England state -- say Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- asks the nominee: "Do you think Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity will be condemned because they reject the oneness of God?"

Ismail Royer knows what would happen if he faced those questions. He would defend one of Islam's core doctrines.

"I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, but not God himself," said Royer, who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. "I'd have to say that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism and is a rejection of the one God. There is no way that I could apologize for what I believe as a Muslim."

A purely hypothetical case? Not after a recent confrontation during a U.S. Senate budget committee hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus -- period.

Thus, Sanders said: "You wrote, 'Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son and they stand condemned.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

Sanders shouted him down: "I understand you are a Christian! But this country is made of people who are not. … Do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?" Sanders concluded that he would reject Vought because, "this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about."

Afterwards, Sanders drew criticism from those arguing that -- rather than defending tolerance -- he had attacked Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which says "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Meanwhile, a similar controversy was unfolding in England, where Tim Farron -- leader of the Liberal Democrats -- resigned after waves of questions about his personal, evangelical beliefs about sexual morality. He had already taken political stands backing abortion and gay marriage.

Finally, Farron released a statement noting: "I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe in and whom my faith is in. … We are kidding ourselves if we think we are living in a tolerant liberal society."

In an essay for The Public Discourse, Royer argued that Sanders and other Vought critics "do not simply object to the way he expressed himself, but to the FACT that he expressed himself. They seek to allow in the public square only those who believe as they do: that all religious beliefs are equally true. The notion that all beliefs are true … is of course a creed in its own right, holding that nothing is objectively true or false, and that there is no absolute right or wrong."

Many Americans who see themselves as "liberals" seem to transitioning from the strong tolerance of religious diversity historically seen in England and America to a "radical, almost Jacobin" style of secularism that is often associated with France, said Royer, reached by telephone.

Sanders and others could, by crusading against traditional Christian doctrines, end up pushing many Muslims out of political life, said Royer. That would be both ironic and devastating.

"So how to we all live together without killing each other? That's the question," said Royer. "It isn't going to help for people to attack true religious diversity in America, stamping out the beliefs of traditional Christians and Muslims. … We don't need some kind of unified, homogenized, secular belief system in this country."