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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50 Responses to “Bernie Sanders is mainstreaming atheism in American politics”

  1. Christopher R Weiss says:

    Of course they are, just as I would hope that a non-religious liberal would eliminate religiously motivated judgments from the law. We still have laws like “seduction” on the books in many states even though these would never pass constitutional muster. With the current congress and a president like Cruz, we would see all kinds of silly moralistic laws coming into being.

    Conservatives are going to try to ban abortion. They will do this by stacking SCOTUS with judges willing to overturn Roe v. Wade and possibly others such as Lawrence v. Texas and Griswold v. Connecticut. This is why it is so important that people who really believe in freedom vote in the next election.

    The real irony for me is that conservatives say they want government out of their lives, but they only mean this from a financial perspective. They are perfectly comfortable imposing moral ideas on the population.

  2. Milton Platt says:

    Perhaps, but I think that religious people are hoping that a candidate will be willing to weave religious beliefs into law.

  3. Milton Platt says:

    Without cleaning out the establishment in congress, even if he were elected he would not be able to implement his philosophy. He would just meet with the usual obstructionism.

  4. Biff Roughneck says:

    So good of this clown to tell the believing 90% of the world what they actually do — and do not — believe.

    Most people who continue on in religion past childhood actually make a conscious decision that they do indeed believe,and continue to invest their time in it.

    What about those who grow up with no religion, and join one as adults? What about atheists who convert?

    I know that the 8% of atheists think that they’re some kind of enlightened group, but insulting, stupid suppositions like this (and, of course, the clouds, sky, and beard references) will garner no respect, only contempt.

  5. lovelydestruction says:

    I’m an ahole? Because I don’t believe everyone who isn’t in an organized religion is an atheist? OK. Sure.

  6. jimmyF says:

    wow, what an ahole. Spirituality has nothing to do with believing in a bearded old man in the sky. This is basic atheism 101. He’s atheist.

  7. lovelydestruction says:

    Believer of what? You sound like there is only one way to God and it’s yours. Here’s something else you probably think no believer would say. Ahole.

  8. Bret Zeller says:

    Since forever. No believer would say that.

  9. lovelydestruction says:

    What? Wait, since when is someone who is “spiritual, but not religious,” make them an atheist?

  10. HandsomeMrToad says:

    Ted Cruz’s problem is his grating, nasal, reedy voice. No way Americans will vote to listen to that for four years. George HW Bush (Bush the elder) had the same problem.

    There are two important factors which no one considers when predicting elections: the candidates’ voices, and the question of how much FUN the candidates would be likely to have as President. Reagan had that silky low baritone voice and everyone knew he would have loads of fun as President, so he won twice (three times if you count the election of his VP as a victory for him). Bill Clinton had that husky heldentenor voice, and had more fun as President than anyone, so he got elected twice (three times if you count Gore winning the popular vote as a victory for Bill). Bush the Elder lost largely because he didn’t seem to enjoy being President very much.

    Trump is winning the Republican primary now largely because he is perceived as the Republican candidate who would have the most fun being President.

  11. Yes that makes him unelectable. Too bad he doesnt have a classy wig like Trump

  12. And you still wonder why he the only sane person in the group of hatemongers & wall street Manchurian candidates

  13. Michael Scott says:

    I guess the twisted GOP bible-thumpers will have a hay day with this one. Does anyone remember that division of church and state thing? Cruz has obviously forgot.
    I wonder what Trump warships other than money and himself.
    Our country was founded by people of multiple beliefs. Contrary to what some people believe, our country was not built by Christians.

  14. عمر الكنعاني الفينيقي says:

    He will be the greatest president in American history.

  15. rickinwa says:

    It’s so refreshing to have a candidate who doesn’t end every speech with “God bless America”. Perhaps we can do away with the invocation at the inauguration and national day of prayer…

  16. Dr Rotwang! says:

    Times like this, I wish I could legally vote for him twice.

  17. goulo says:

    I agree that most people did not consciously rationally choose to believe in god, but rather just were automatically assimilated into whatever religion was dominant in their family and surrounding society.

    But I don’t see how this means that they don’t actually believe in god. The definition of belief doesn’t imply some conscious carefully considered choice, at least to me. Just because someone’s belief isn’t rational or wasn’t consciously considered does not make it not really a belief, does it?

    It seems analogous to trying to say that racists are not really racist, because no one wakes up one day and says “Golly, gee, I really believe that my race is the master race and other races are inferior subhumans whom I have the right to oppress.”

  18. goulo says:

    If THAT’S his main problem, it puts him lightyears ahead of the other candidates, who all have FAR more serious problems.

  19. Houndentenor says:

    If it didn’t so often impact what they did while in office I would agree. But many times it does. And the more they talk about it, the more likely that is to be so.

  20. Houndentenor says:

    In 1976 Jimmy Carter gave a highly publicized interview with Playboy in which he talked a great deal about his religious beliefs. That was unheard of at the time. (Both the Playboy interview part and the in-depth discussion of religion.) Kennedy actually made a speech downplaying his religion as influencing his role as president should he be elected. It was Carter that dragged all this out. Nixon didn’t talk about his religion except maybe in the vaguest of terms. Nor did Johnson. Or Eisenhower or Truman. It simply wasn’t done. Religion was considered a divisive topic and politics was bout attracting the most voters.

    Then two things happened…Carter opened Pandora’s Box and out flew Jerry Falwell and the religious right with Ronald Reagan there to cheer them on (and exploit them). And political consultants started applying marketing strategies to politics. Suddenly with computer data and modeling it was possible to figure out exactly who was voting for you or not and why and design positions and platitutdes to appeal to specific groups. It even became obvious that you could win over group A by attacking group B. Karl Rove had done the math in 2004 and knew that they wouldn’t lose many gay-friendly moderate Republicans with their gay-bashing campaign, but they would drive religious right turnout in specific states.

    And here we are now with a dysfunctional government and two very fucked up party machines.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    Yet another reason why his candidacy has been important. I hate how the media plays the primaries as a winner-take all horse-race. There’s a lot more to it than that. Each party needs to sort out its priorities for the next four years and this is when they have the opportunity to do that. And yes, no candidate has ever done this well without touting some religious belief or other. That’s significant.

  22. perljammer says:

    You might consider just taking the man at his word, rather than trying to run his comments through the filter of your own wishes and beliefs. Personally, I think calling someone an atheist when he says “I believe in God” might not be entirely accurate.

  23. BeccaM says:

    Is that you, Mr. Trump?

  24. Randy Riddle says:

    I thought that Ted Cruz and Ben Carson were already mainstreaming atheism by making religion look so unappealing…

  25. HandsomeMrToad says:

    Sanders’ main problem is the weird things he does with his mouth–licking his lips, sticking out the tip of his tongue while he speaks. Very unappealing. I don’t think I could watch that for four years.

  26. Christopher R Weiss says:

    The joy of free speech is we get to express our opinions.

    Of course the beliefs or non-beliefs of someone running for office are valid topics of discussion. People want to know what someone does or does not believe, which will influence how they vote. I won’t vote for a fundamentalist Christian just like the fundamentalist Christian won’t vote for an atheist. Neither is more “valid” than the other. Of course, I think I am right, which is my opinion. However, saying that atheism should not be used as a factor in evaluating a candidate is absurd and ignores how important religion/nonreligion is to people.

    I agree that it is not right for someone to impose their religious beliefs on someone. This violates the first amendment when that actor is a member of the government and it would violate article V if it were used as a criterion for running for office. However, religious beliefs or non-beliefs most certainly influence the decisions an elected official will make, so these are valid forms of personal judgment. We all want people in office who reflect our personal values.

  27. Frog 11 says:

    I think a lot of people are “back pocket” believers.

    I’d guess for many, the idea of God is a convenience, not actually core to them.

    Why don’t religious people sigh a breath of relief when someone passes away at a young age, thankful they get to skip a lifetime of suffering and pain on Earth and skip ahead quickly to the paradise that lasts forever?

    Why do they worry when they see someone “wasting their life?” Why do our achievements in these few short decades matter at all when an infinity of carefree afterlife awaits?

    Why do Christians wear seatbelts? Work out? Get colonoscopies?

    When compared to eternity, why does life on Earth have any value at all?

    Maybe for many, spiritual faith is a convenient thing to have in their back pocket. Something to fall back on when the the fear of reality sets in. Rather than face mortality, face failure in life’s pursuits, cope with real, permanent loss, maybe having the promise, however unrealistic, of perfection for ever and ever is a handy security blanket one can clutch to until the scary feelings ebb away and we return to a blissfully ignorant life.

    Just maybe.

  28. Maralynne Nathanson Flehner says:

    Christopher, in my mind there’s a difference between choosing to practice a particular religion, or choosing not to practice any religion at all, and choosing to impose your religious beliefs on others. I don’t believe the former is relevant to a candidate’s fitness to serve, or is a proper subject for criticism, but the latter is absolutely relevant to a candidate’s fitness to serve and should be open to criticism (e.g., Kim from Kentucky). In this country, no one has the right to impose their religious beliefs on others.

  29. Christopher R Weiss says:

    Hmmmm…… You are missing the point of free speech. A “right” does not mean you cannot be criticized for your choices. This only means you cannot be prosecuted by the government or legally discriminated against.

    Criticizing someone’s religious choices does not mean you are going discriminate against them or in any way interfere with their personal right to observe or abstain from religion.

    I am an atheist, and I support Sanders. However, I disagree that people who criticize his atheism are against freedom of religion – they are simply uncomfortable with his religious choices. I full despise the Westboro hate cult, and I will say so publicly. I am not against their freedom of religion, but I think their beliefs are detestable.

  30. Christopher R Weiss says:

    Ralpha Nader wasn’t nearly as likable as Sanders, and he never polled more than 2% in any state. Sanders is leading Clinton in some states, and like BHO he actually has a chance after he wins a state or too. When BHO ran, there was general disbelief that a black man with ties to Kenya and Indonesia could win the general election.

    I agree it seems unlikely now, but I also never believed Trump would be leading in the polls by such a large margin coming into primary season. If Trump can win the GOP nomination, then Sanders stands a reasonable chance of becoming president.

  31. Palined Parenthood says:

    Hmm…

  32. Christopher R Weiss says:

    Most religion is most certainly just a byproduct of social conditioning by friends and family. I couldn’t agree more.

  33. BeccaM says:

    Most people who are monotheists seem to believe in a God who agrees with their every moral judgment and prejudice and who conveniently overlooks every hypocrisy and inconsistency, through assertions of having been ‘saved’ and ‘forgiven.’

    A form of spiritual projection, really. Or perhaps to be more kind, a psychologically externalized manifestation of their own super-ego.

  34. BeccaM says:

    Oh, their beliefs are totally relevant when they claim their God says using contraception is morally wrong. Or that God wants people in a brain-dead vegetative state to linger on forever. Or that God says gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should have no rights. Or that women are inherently less than men in value and rights.

    Religious beliefs are, as I mentioned in my own comment above, the dishonest rhetoric of the appeal to irrefutable authority, and sadly all of GOP candidates have said their positions are determined in part or mainly by their religious beliefs. One of them, Ted Cruz, even went so far as to say he’s a Christian first and an American second. That says to me as president, he would expect the entire country to live by his beliefs.

    So yeah, it matters. It shouldn’t, but it matters.

  35. Maralynne Nathanson Flehner says:

    My intention in posting my comment was not to criticize anyone. I simply do not believe that any candidate’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, is relevant.

  36. goulo says:

    I agree that a candidate’s religion SHOULDN’T be relevant in terms of their suitability for office (unless the candidate intends to try to run the country based on their religious beliefs instead of on democratic principles.)

    But discussion of a candidate’s non-Christian religion is relevant and interesting in a discussion of the bigger picture of US culture, i.e. that so far in US history, a presidential candidate who is not publicly Christian (and doesn’t pander to Christians to some degree) is unelectable. It would certainly be nice if that were to change.

    But in any case, Jon certainly wasn’t criticizing Bernie Sanders (or do you think that he was?), so I’m still not sure why you were apparently admonishing someone for criticizing someone else’s religious choices. Simply TALKING about someone’s religion does not imply CRITICIZING it. Indeed, if anything, Jon seems favorably inclined to the religious choices of Bernis Sanders, rather than criticizing him because of his religious choices.

    Oh well, I guess it is one of those Internet miscommunications…

  37. Maralynne Nathanson Flehner says:

    All I’m saying is that I don’t see why a discussion of any candidate’s religion is relevant.

  38. BeccaM says:

    No, I may very well be criticizing someone because their religious choices are inconsistent, hypocritical, and/or cruel. In fact, I quite enjoy singling out for extreme disdain the homophobic bigots like, for example, Kim Davis. A woman who is all granny-panty-bunched about gay and lesbian couples marrying under civil law, when she herself is a serial monogamist with multiple divorces, repeated adultery, and kids born out-of-wedlock under her frumpy sack-dress.

    I’m not saying at all that people don’t have a right to be intolerant bigots who lean on the dishonest rhetorical appeal to irrefutable authority in their attempts to make others live according to one religion’s arbitrary iron-age originating cultural rules. I totally respect people’s right to be intolerant bigots, right up until the point their bigotry starts interfering with my civil, secular rights.

    At that point, you’ve long exceeded the reasonable constraints for any one person’s freedom of religion. And you’re fucking right I’m going to criticize anybody whose cherry-picked self-justifying religious beliefs include their own perceived privilege to abridge my civil rights.

  39. nicho says:

    Most people don’t actually believe in god. They say they do, but what they really do is subscribe to a dogma that they’re either born into or is foisted on them by someone else. No one wakes up one day and says, “Golly, gee, I really believe in a triune god who is eternal and omnipotent and who lives in a big cloudy place in the sky and who will come to judge the world by fire.” They get that from someone else and they go along with it. This is why it’s such a joke when people say “faith-based” about anything. It’s really “dogma-based.”

  40. goulo says:

    I’m confused why you left this comment; are you saying that Jon was somehow criticizing someone because of their religious choices? Or that Bernie Sanders was? Or what?

    In any case, you seem to be making a logical error in your second sentence. Criticizing someone’s ACTIONS or choices is not the same as criticizing the FREEDOM to do those actions. E.g. I would certainly criticize a chain smoker for unhealthily smoking too much, but I do not criticize the freedom to smoke; I think people should have the freedom to choose to chain smoke (and screw up their own health) if they want to.

  41. emjayay says:

    Too bad there are so many of them, and they vote.

  42. emjayay says:

    “That you can run for president, competitively, without claiming guidance from a supreme being…”

    Um, no. You can run for the nomination for president from the Democratic party. You cannot run, at least not successfully, and win the presidency, as a not too disguised atheist.

    The elderly Socialist former Jew but now Atheist from New York who moved to the Ben and Jerry hippie farmer and bed and breakfast state calling for a People’s Revolution knocking down all of the institutions of society doesn’t just have one target on his back but is covered with them.

    It’s not that I don’t generally agree with him. He’s just unelectable. Historical analogues, and both before Lee Atwater: Goldwater and McGovern. And, what the heck, how about Eugene V. Debs? Or maybe a more recent guy with about the same platform: Ralph Nader.

  43. mark_in_toronto says:

    Unfortunately, you can’t vote for Bernie unless he is the choosen candidate. These year-long+ campaigns are so invasive and sensationalized, people are losing track of the actual election process.

  44. sane37 says:

    …. and when you criticize someone criticizing religion, you’re criticizing freedom of speech about religions.

    Makes perfect sense when you’re drunk on the lord

  45. Maralynne Nathanson Flehner says:

    Let’s all remember that the United States Constitution gives Americans the right to worship, or not worship, as they please. When you criticize someone because of their religious choices, you’re criticizing freedom of religion.

  46. 1nancy2 says:

    My rabid repub. friend just said she is voting for Bernie; changing to Independent. That’s 2 votes for Bernie, oh, 3, another friend is voting for him too. Will try to get more to change to him.

  47. The_Fixer says:

    Bernie’s playing it smart – he knows that coming out and saying that you’re an Atheist is the kiss of death for any politician. So, he basically adopts an attitude that I think average Americans have adopted – don’t associate yourself too deeply with a particular religion, but do believe in something. I honestly think that most Americans, in spite of maybe being pressured into going to church occasionally, have a spiritual side, but are really not that into religion.

    Sure, this does not do him any favors with the Evangelicals and other religio-crazies – but he never had them in his corner anyway. Overall, I don’t think that this is going to hurt him. Might even do him a favor with those who are tired of all of the phony and/or excessive religiousity in the political arena.

  48. UncleBucky says:

    See, the “creative force” needn’t be all analytical. It can be given a name, it can be described personally, and it even can BE personal, if we understand that the creative force is imbued in each and every one of us, in every living being, and even in the non-living aspects of the Universe.

    Is that pantheism? Sure, but that’s not a bad thing, because it gives ascent to the idea that the Universe (or the Multiverse) may not just be a mechanical thing without value, without reasons to be and without a self-image. That all could be.

    But for me, I am a BIBLICAL ATHEIST. I don’t believe (other than Jesus’s Abba notion of ‘the Father’) in the Biblical old man in the sky with a vengeance to mow you down if you don’t listen to the men who wrote that book and have an interest in your being passive, quiet and contributing to their well-being as agents of their “sky god”. Not gonna accept that anymore.

  49. UncleBucky says:

    Ah, so the thumpers would beat on him for being an atheist or agnostic, someone who would force Christians (weep, weep, croco tears) to abandon their religion and vote for him.

    I have HAD it with religionists.

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