Bernie Sanders just came reeeeeeally close to coming out as an non-believer

Bernie Sanders is Jewish the same way I’m Jewish: emphasis on the ish. As the New Yorker reported in their October 12 issue, Sanders values his Jewish heritage, “less for the religious content than for the sense it imbued in him that politics mattered.” So while he still identifies as Jewish when asked, and his Jewish heritage has in many ways informed his political identity, he isn’t all that observant. And in an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Wednesday night, Sanders gave his clearest indication yet that, if elected, he would be both our first Jewish and first non-believing president (and no, those identities are not mutually exclusive):

When asked about his electability, Sanders dropped a “God forbid” at the prospect of a Republican victory in the general election — a line that drew an applause break from the audience. But when Sanders finished answering the question, Kimmel used it as a followup, asking Sanders if he believed in God, or if his “God forbid” was ironic given “culturally Jewish” identity.

Rather than answering that question head-on, Sanders pivoted to an ecumenical case for reducing economic inequality, referencing his “spirituality” instead of his “faith”:

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.

It didn’t take very long for conservative media sites, such as The Blaze, to read between those lines: Sanders may have just outed himself as a non-believer.

Bernie Sanders at Liberty, screenshot via CSPAN

Bernie Sanders at Liberty, screenshot via CSPAN

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.

This would be a pretty big deal, despite the fact that one’s religion should not be a big deal when running for office. Perhaps paradoxically, America’s nominal religious tolerance despite there being zero openly non-believing members of Congress means that it matters that it doesn’t matter whether Sanders believes in god.

So while I understand if Sanders would rather talk about economic inequality than his religious beliefs — or lack thereof — I think it would have been immensely useful for him to have stated a little more clearly that it is entirely plausible for a presidential contender to mount a legitimate campaign without religious belief. Given Hillary Clinton’s marked religiosity (she used the phrase “God-given potential” no less than three times during the last Democratic debate) to go along with the GOP’s diehard, inverted Christianity, it would be nice to have a more “spiritual” voice in the race. Given the fact that “unaffiliated” is America’s fastest-growing religious identification — an identification that makes common cause with cultural Jews, such as Sanders and myself — it’s only a matter of time before a candidate articulates our beliefs on the national stage.

And for my own selfish reasons, I hope Sanders is the one to do it.

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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42 Responses to “Bernie Sanders just came reeeeeeally close to coming out as an non-believer”

  1. LanceThruster says:

    Atheist socialist?


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  3. Robert Wright III says:

    It’s an issue in America because there are way more Christians here (about 70%) than Australia, and many of them think that an atheist is someone corrupted by the devil. With regard to the most influential Founding Fathers being not very religious/deists, most Americans don’t know that. The Republicans have convinced many people that the nation was founded on Biblical principles, which means that your lack of Christianity is a lack of patriotism.

  4. CCFan says:

    What I hear a politician say, “Jesus is my personal savior”, I take it as BS. BTW, Ronald Reagan supported horrendous mass killings in Latin American.

  5. CCFan says:

    He said “according to the Bible.”

  6. CCFan says:

    Agreed. Altruism is important for survival and propagation of our genes. We evolved into having moral and ethical value which, in certain religions, written into tenets.

  7. CCFan says:

    You got it the other way around. Moral, ethical people define the tenet of a religion.

  8. paltel says:

    I don’t believe in religion. Carlin makes a pretty case for the Sun being God.

  9. A_J_H says:

    Why is this an issue? Here in Australia, we’ve had plenty of spiritualist, agnostic, atheist Prime Ministers , and all manner of beliefs in-between. They were fine.

    And in the US, you’ve had dissidents too. Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, and created a special version of the Bible without any mysticism or reference to miracles… just the words and teachings of Jesus as a “philosopher”.

    Hell, many of the Founding Fathers called themselves “Deists”, not “Christians”. The Deist movement is the precursor to today’s Unitarian Universalism movement.

    The requirement to declare Christian beliefs only came about during the Cold War, when the US was fighting the “Godless Commies”.

  10. Matt Dukes Jordan says:

    Thanks, Jon. Enjoyed your thoughts. As we see Ben Carson rise in the Iowa polls based in part on support from Evangelical Christians, it’s clear that on the right religious belief is important to getting votes. On the left it might not be as important because, from my point of view, liberals are less likely to adhere to any form of dogmatic belief system. They tend to be more open-minded, less quick to judge, more willing to consider both sides of an issue. A belief in being open-minded might be the real and underlying belief that a person like Bernie might articulate when asked about his religious beliefs. A tolerance for ambiguity, a willingness to suspend judgement, makes one’s life a little more difficult in some ways than having absolute answers at hand in any discussion, but it’s also enriching. I like Sanders for president. I’ve tried to explore some of his life story and ideas, and some of the challenges he faces in a nation that shifted so far to the right since Reagan in my book on Sanders. Here’s the link.

  11. Dave says:

    Speak English mf_roe. This is a random set of irrelevant statements. The conundrum is that your statements are inane and don’t follow.

    “How can legitimacy come from excluding the views of believers?”.
    Ans: What are you even talking about? No one is excluding anyone. Believe in Fairies, don’t believe in Fairies. Still… 1 vote. Religion is protected by the very first Amendment.

    “Government must be moral to be legitimate”.
    Ans: Actually legitimacy comes voting. Electing Moral/honest people certainly is best, and is what people try to do. The problem is that Religious people believe Morality comes from Religion (ergo, only they are Moral, go figure).

    Here is the answer to life: People believe whatever their social group tells them to believe. If you are raised to believe in Fairies,you will believe in Fairies, and you’ll pass that on to your kids. If you are raised a Cowboy, good chance you are have a set of boots, and a Cowboy hat.

  12. 2karmanot says:

    Thank you. It’s like discussing Tinkerbell’s morals.

  13. Stanley Green says:

    Ethics(a set of principles and study of morality) can come from religion, but morality is an engraved since of evolutionary logic(right and wrong/ACCEPTED moral standards). There is no conundrum, but simply the same old misuse of words to boost a personal belief or give an argument of value. Example, if morality came from religion or even a deity, that alone, by definition, would defeat the idea of morality as a whole, because the action would have no personal reflection of choice. Where as, ethics can help point out and shape animalistic behavior.

  14. 2karmanot says:


  15. Pete Hammer says:

    I don’t think Bernie will be open about it because he doesn’t think it’s an important enough issue to distract from his core message. A person’s religious beliefs are just that, personal. The irony that the right wing Republicans have co-opted Christianity even though the teachings of the Bible and Jesus Christ are at odds with many of beliefs and actions is startling. Disdain for the poor and disadvantaged and the virtues of the accumulation of wealth are not the central teachings of Jesus Christ as far as I know.

  16. WarrenHart says:

    Bernie sanders is culturally Jewish which is the same thing as being Jewish.

  17. Walter Beals says:

    Article VI, paragraph 3

  18. red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    “God” doesn’t decide anything. There’s no such entity.

  19. red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    Doesn’t that go without saying? Do we really need to make it explicit, at least among rational people?

  20. red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    “Would Bernie Sanders be America’s first non-believing president?”
    Probably not; just the first one to be open and honest about it. And it’s about time! Religion — at least in its radical fundamentalist form — is lethal to any chance for us to achieve a more just and equitable society.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    Agreed. Carter was the last president who actually lived his faith. And look how his own denomination turned on him. Evangelicals prefer fake religion over the real thing. They love being pandered to. Liberal Christians do too, btw. I don’t really care so long as they won’t be making stupid decisions based on what they think their imaginary friend is telling them to do, but I don’t see any chance of such a person getting to be president any time soon.

  22. paltel says:

    Here you go again speaking for God. God decides who qualifies as a Christian according to the Bible, not you.

    Judge not, lest ye be judged. You’re in a heap of trouble.

  23. paltel says:

    Who died and made you the decider as to who is a Christian and who is not. I suggest that you find a sepulchre to bury your ego, as Im pretty sure the Bible says God is the decider.

    We have too damn many professed Christians that are full of crap claiming to speak for God. I’m embarrassed having to tell you this, not being a Christian myself.

  24. Yale Landsberg says:

    Hey Jon, I am running for Tom’s seat in Congress. Per my campaign site, if I win I plan to put my seat IN the aisle! Do you have any advice for my campaign? Regards, YALE

  25. paltel says:

    The operative word is “attempts”. Religion is created by men and has nothing to with God.

  26. paltel says:

    Do what you like with your strawman, it has no bearing on anything.

  27. FLL says:

    Another likely advantage of a Sanders administration: No National Prayer Breakfast! Yay!

  28. mf_roe says:

    The conundrum is:
    religion defines morality for the religious people
    Government must be moral to be legitimate
    How can legitimacy come from excluding the views of believers?

  29. mf_roe says:

    A true follower of Jesus is not self righteous, they don’t address their prayers to the crowd.
    As for good works I’m pretty sure the Clinton Foundation is on track to to eclipse Carter’s programs soon if it hasn’t already. There’s also the Jesus no-no about good works buying anything.

    Carter was and remains the most blatant example of forcing religion into government on the Dems side of the debate in living memory, Jesus was pretty clear that Caesar’s realm was separate and he wasn’t here to change that. The Amish idea of “in the world not of the world” is a very good example.

    I know many good people who strive to be good christians, I have also know far too many Pharisees.

  30. Indigo says:

    It matters very much because in today’s hothouse atmosphere, religionism attempts to control political discourse.

  31. BeccaM says:

    What, in your estimation, is a ‘true Christian’ and how did Carter fail to meet that rather low bar of sincere piety? The guy taught Sunday School and served as a deacon at his church, and has spent the last 35 years doing major humanitarian projects, which is something no other former U.S. president has ever done.

    I don’t expect sainthood (ignoring for now the fact most canonized Christian saints were actually complete assholes elevated solely for political reasons), but Carter has probably been a better human being overall than you or I could ever hope to be.

  32. horsehockey says:

    Does it really matter? He is spiritual as it is. Religion has no place in politics so it is a non-issue. He is a good politician with excellent values. Next…

  33. Indigo says:

    It’s for the best if candidates keep their views to themselves. That’s what those deistic Freemasons, bound by vows of silence, of yesteryear did to a considerable extent. We need that quiet sense of private dignity back. There is much in human life that does not merit public disclosure and discussion.

  34. mf_roe says:

    Carter just had the act down better, as a true Christian he fails, another Sepulchre with superior whitewash.

  35. BeccaM says:

    I disagree. I happen to believe that Sanders is principled enough to be the sort of politician who truly believes in the wall between church and state. And that a person’s religious beliefs should be PRIVATE and give no impression that once in office, he’ll go nuts trying to impose his beliefs on the rest of the nation — unlike every single GOP candidate.

    In any case, I’d rather have a sincere agnostic or atheist (c’mon, ‘non-believer’ — let’s be accurate in our terminology here) lead the country than a religious hypocrite. Which at the moment seems to be everybody else in the race except for Sanders.

    At this point, I honestly think Jimmy Carter was probably the last (and only) sincerely Christian guy to hold the office for at least the last half century, perhaps longer. His faith may have made him a better man, but it sure as heck didn’t make him a better president. (For example, his judgement of the character of others was abysmal back then.)

  36. mf_roe says:

    For my money, Jefferson was a Natural Law humanist. He felt comfortable editing the Bible and having it printed at government expense. He owned what is surely the FIRST Presidential Koran. Jefferson used the moral arguments of many religions in his analysis of a path HE felt intellectually comfortable with. My belief is that Sanders is a member of Jefferson’s Church. The CREED? “IS IT JUST?”

  37. mf_roe says:

    And they were dyed in the wool supporters of Law keeping out of their church, that hasn’t changed they just want to forget the part of a compromise where they agreed to remain outside of government to balance their Religious Liberty. Makes them Promise Breakers.

  38. 2karmanot says:

    High snark and major wisdom today my friend…well done!

  39. nicho says:

    Well, it’s an interesting coming together. Until about 1980, Evangelicals wanted nothing to do with politics. I have a very good friend who was an Evangelical ministers — until he saw the light. He was pretty well-regarded and was being groomed to be in the upper echelons of the Evangelical hierarchy, such as it is. He hung out with Billy Graham and all those guys. He tells me that political involvement was extremely frowned up. Evangelicals saw their mission as getting people “saved,” not being involved in politics. In fact, he was chastised in the ’60s for anti-war activity — and not because it was “liberal,” but because it was politics. You didn’t do that.

  40. Indigo says:

    Most of the early presidents were Freemasons, Christian in form for the most part, but with very open-ended beliefs about what it all means. Deists, most likely. Today’s extremist Bibliolotry and histrionics had no part in their socially polite practice of public religion. They would find the whole contemporary charade ridiculous.

  41. Indigo says:

    At some point, the religion pendulum is bound to swing back towards indifference to the sectarian religionism that holds media enthralled by crackpots like Kim Davis. Maybe Sanders could help swing that pendulum around. I like that he was able to use the word “spirituality” in a sentence without sniggering like a low-income preacher or putting on an Oprah face like a shopper who can afford the very best in spiritual toys. He seems, most likely is, genuine. That’s a step in a healthy direction that our entire population needs to take.

  42. nicho says:

    I’m guessing there were a lot of “non-believing” presidents. They just pretended otherwise for political reasons. If they had really believed in an afterlife and a just God, they wouldn’t have done most of the stuff they’ve done. Reagan really didn’t even go through the motions of pretending very hard. I’m thinking Jimmy Carter was the only real believer. Hillary makes a good show of being religious, but then she makes a good show of being a lot of things she’s not.

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