Bernie Sanders is mainstreaming atheism in American politics

Bernie Sanders is, as he’s suggested before, Jewish with an emphasis on the ish. His Jewish heritage has informed his morality and his politics, but he doesn’t claim to be observant in any officially religious sense.

In an interview with the Washington Post published this morning, Sanders went a step further, making that point as clearly as he ever:

“I am not actively involved with organized religion,” Sanders said in a recent interview.

Sanders said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner.

“I think everyone believes in God in their own ways, “ he said. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

As atheist blogger Hemant Mehta pointed out, that’s basically a really PC way of saying you’re an atheist. Sanders may have used the word “God” to describe his belief system, but it’s pretty clear that his version of God isn’t an old man in the sky. There’s no actual deity involved — no theism — just a generalized interconnectedness.

That’s a spirituality, not a religion.

This isn’t the first time Sanders has given non-believers the opportunity to read between the lines and conclude that he’s one of them. Check out how Sanders answered Jimmy Kimmel in October when asked if he believed in God:

As Sanders said then:

I am who I am and what I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together. That I think it is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people. This is not Judaism — this is what Pope Francis is talking about — that we cannot worship just billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.

And as I wrote then:

To be clear, Sanders really could have just been pivoting back to his core economic message. Then again, when a cultural Jew replaces “faith” or “God” with “my spirituality,” that’s a pretty clear indication that, pace President Obama, God is not in the mix.

Bernie Sanders at Liberty University, screenshot via CSPAN

Bernie Sanders at Liberty University, screenshot via CSPAN

As the Post notes, Sanders’s lack of active involvement with a specific religious organization would put him in rare company if elected. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson are our only presidents who were “unaffiliated with a specific religious tradition.” To be clear, he still hasn’t officially “come out” as an atheist — that would be a first for a president — but given how intertwined American politics is with old-time religion, the fact that Sanders has distanced himself from organized religion is itself a pretty big deal.

Not that it should be. Perhaps paradoxically, it’s a big deal for a presidential candidate to say that he doesn’t have traditional religious beliefs because it goes to show how silly it is that the religious beliefs of presidential candidates are a big deal. No one should care whether Bernie Sanders is an atheist, but until the the number of members of Congress who are openly non-believing is raised above zero, and until the number of people who would refuse to vote for an atheist of their own party falls below 40 percent, his (lack of) religious belief is a big deal.

As Mehta continued, “Sure, he could have said religion shouldn’t matter when it comes to politics, but it does. That’s just the reality of it. People care. So a response that doesn’t belittle anyone’s beliefs, but instead points to what we all have in common, makes for a powerful answer.”

That you can run for president, competitively, without claiming guidance from a supreme being is a signal to the rest of the country that our politics and our morals aren’t necessarily attached to our religious institutions. Regardless as to whether you plan to vote for him, it’s pretty cool that Sanders’s candidacy is, little by little, mainstreaming atheism in American politics.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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