Bernie Sanders’ lack of religion makes him better for America

Sanders is more concerned with ethics than faith.
Sanders is more concerned with ethics than faith.
Image: AP Photo/John Minchillo
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When politicians hit the campaign trail, even the least devout candidates have a tendency to find religion. But recent comments from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders suggest this hypocritical all-American tradition may be on its way out.

In an interview published Jan. 26 in the Washington Post, Sanders says he “is not actively involved with organized religion.” He tells the Post that he believes in God, but there is nothing supernatural about his description of the concept: “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together,” he says.

I myself am a Jewish atheist. While Sanders has not claimed that label for himself, his statements on the subject of faith suggest to me that he is one too. “What my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together,” he told Jimmy Kimmel in October, adding that he believes all people should be working to alleviate the suffering of others. His friend Stanley Gutman told the Post that Sanders often brings up “the ethical thing to do,” but rarely references religion.

Sanders’ deeply humanist views make me think that he could turn out to be a good leader for our heterogeneous nation—both because he is brave enough to speak a new kind of truth about religion, and because he is motivated to do the right thing for its own sake.

Should Donald Trump win the Republican nomination and Sanders snag the Democratic one, it’s possible that we could have a presidential race between two people who appear well outside the model of faithful Christianity. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that the American public perceives Trump as the least religious of candidates, followed by Sanders.

But whereas Sanders has now spoken fairly openly about his lack of religiosity, Trump has blundered in his attempts to fake his way to godliness. Witness his botched effort to cite a book of the Bible as “Two Corinthians,” and his mistaken attempt to put a few bucks into a communion plate. That said, perhaps Trump doesn’t need to be a convincing Christian. He’s uniting some Americans through a new language of exclusion, much of it centered on hatred for losers, women, and immigrants.

By contrast, rather than emphasize a special Jewish piety, Sanders has pushed his religious affiliation aside. His relative forthrightness highlights the insincerity that characterizes the relationship between religion and contemporary American politics.

For too long, politicians have been called upon to tout their (typically Christian) faith in order to be deemed electable. This lack of authenticity has wide-ranging consequences. When voters accept that politicians must obscure the truth about their beliefs in order to win a race, we effectively relinquish a basic psychological pre-condition for trust. Sanders’ honesty may make Americans—religious and non-religious alike—trust him more, and perhaps even wake us from our stupor of cynicism.

What’s more, the notion that candidates are only viable if they comport themselves as church-going Christians has become increasingly outdated. A 2015 Pew study showed that 23% of Americans chose “none” when asked about their religion. A full third of Americans ages 30 and under do not affiliate themselves with any religion; and 7% of Americans define themselves as atheists or agnostics. These changes are happening across a wide range of demographic groups, as the Pew study notes.

The study also shows that even people who say they are religious are attending church or temple less often, and that Americans who say they believe in God also noted, in greater proportions than ever before, that they are not always sure that God exists. By many measures, what I somewhat jokingly call the “Interfaithless movement” is growing. I use the term “Interfaithless” to highlight the fact that post-religious people from various faiths have much in common. We may not yet be very visible on the political landscape, but we will be soon.

Our political importance will grow not only because our numbers are swelling, but also because the ideological climate has changed. In my studies on the history of atheism, I have found that the modern American resistance to irreligion is directly linked with the Cold War. The USSR was avowedly atheist. In order to distance ourselves from our godless, communist enemies, Americans made “In God we trust” our national motto and stuck the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance during the 1950s. Atheism and socialism were equally associated with treachery in the American mind.

The colossal effect of this taboo on atheism is only obvious when we know that before World War II, atheism in this country was remarkably vital. When the New York Times asked Thomas Edison about his thoughts on the afterlife, he told them that he was sure there was none, and that there was no creator. “No; nature made us—nature did it all—not the gods of the religions,” he said.

Renowned early-20th century public speaker Robert Ingersoll was nicknamed the Great Agnostic. And many other entertainers, artists, authors, philosophers, activists and other public figures throughout the late 19th to mid-20th century let it be known that they did not believe in God. Openly atheist or irreligionist public figures included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Bertrand Russell, Margaret Sanger, Pablo Picasso, Wallace Stevens, Katherine Hepburn, and many others.

There is also a deep history of irreligion among American presidents. Thomas Jefferson created a version of the Christian Bible with all the supernaturalist parts excised–he doesn’t even mention the resurrection. He casually called himself an Epicurean (an ancient materialist/naturalist strain of thought). He also counseled a beloved nephew in a surviving letter to “question with boldness even the existence of God.” John Adams expressed strong critiques of organized religion, and in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli wrote that the US is no more a Christian state than it is a Jewish or Muslim one.

Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, sometimes used the word God in his homespun stories. But his wife and his friends said that he had “no faith,” did not hold Christian beliefs and had no belief in an afterlife. Consider the words of one of Lincoln’s oldest friends and life-long collaborator, Ward Hill Lamon. “‘Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men,” Lamon said.

Early in the 20th century, William Taft turned down the presidency of Yale University because, he said, he did not believe in the divinity of Christ. And when he ran for president he was repeatedly called an atheist, which he did not deny.

The examples of Jefferson and Lincoln in particular suggest that a religiously unaffiliated mind may be able to see a little further into the future. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation were each born of their author’s ability to see the old world in a new way. Other people were calling for independence and for emancipation, of course. Jefferson and Lincoln didn’t invent those ideas. But it is worth considering that a leader who is comfortable with sustaining doubt may be more capable of enacting adroit change when necessary.

Today we are in a new ideological age. In the post-9/11 era, the greatest international threat against the US comes from radical Islamist terrorists who see Americans as the secularists. Atheism is no longer a trait associated with foreign enemies. This shift is what has allowed Sanders to get away with what was until recently political poison.

All of which is not to say that I’m sure I’ll give Sanders my vote in the primary. Personally, I’ve been leaning toward Hillary Clinton from the beginning—even though when she starts talking about Christ I get a little itchy. But I am impressed with Sanders’ understanding of morality, and with the fact that he can sense that a change is significantly underway as to tolerate his admissions.

I am also struck by Sanders’ language of inclusion—in powerful contrast to Trump. When Sanders spoke at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian school where Trump made his Corinthians gaffe, he movingly addressed the differences between his audience’s belief and his own:

I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions — in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions — and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12, and it states: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.”

A candidate ready to admit that he is not a part of any religion, while respecting people whose beliefs differ from his own, might well be the person who can lead our fractured country toward trust and unity. In a diverse land, imagine the power of having a leader with no “people” but the people.