Religious questions are silly and irrelevant in national politics

If you had atheist-baiting on your bingo card for last night’s Democratic debate, congratulations. I sure didn’t.

I thought the Democratic Party was getting to a place where professions of faith, while certainly not out of bounds, weren’t considered a requirement or qualification for public office. We may still be on that track, but apparently we aren’t there yet.

Toward the end of last night’s event, which featured questions from members of the audience, a woman who identified as undecided asked Sanders, and then Clinton, what amounted to religious tests for each.


To Sanders, she simply asked, “do you believe that God is relevant, why or why not?” For Clinton, she had a slightly more detailed question:

Secretary Clinton, during our church services, we pray for the president of the United States, we pray for the armed forces, we pray for all civil authorities, three times during our liturgy. And we give thanks to them. We pray for our loved ones. We pray for our enemies. To whom and for whom do you pray?

First off, wow. That’s a lot of very specific prayers for people in power. Second off, what? Both versions of this woman’s question can be boiled down to “do you share my religious beliefs?” And while you’re certainly welcome to factor the answer to that question into your own personal calculus concerning your vote choice, given the woman’s obvious Christianity and the way she phrased her questions it’s pretty clear that she already knew the answers. Hillary Clinton is deeply religious. Bernie Sanders is, at most, differently religious. These facts are well-known. It isn’t particularly interesting, or relevant, to ask them to say so again.

However, faced with what were silly and irrelevant questions that had nothing to do with who would make a better president, both Sanders and Clinton were able to come up with answers that reflected their best spiritual and religious selves.

For his part, Sanders led off by insisting that, yes, God is relevant before, as he has previously done when needled about his secularism, replacing “God” with shared moral values. As he said:

…when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.

I am here tonight, and I’m running for president. I’m a United States Senator from my great state of Vermont because I believe that, because I believe morally and ethically we do not have a right to turn our backs on children in Flint, Michigan who are being poisoned, or veterans who are sleeping out on the street.

This prompted a followup from Anderson Cooper asking whether Sanders was downplaying his Judaism, which led to one of Sanders’s better responses of the entire night:

No. I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am.

Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.

I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.

You don’t have to wear a yarmulke and go to services every Saturday morning to have your moral values be informed by Jewish traditions and culture — traditions and culture that, given millennia of oppression, tend toward the egalitarian and even the secular. One of the reasons why a majority of American Jews embrace secularism, especially in politics, is because we’ve had a particularly thorny experience when politics and religion have been merged. The term “wearing your faith on your sleeve” means something different for us, which is why we’re loath to do it.

Sanders’s answer was perhaps the clearest articulation of that sentiment that any presidential candidate has ever given.

Clinton, for her part, was asked a slightly more specific and less-pointed question. To her credit, she used the opportunity to direct her faith in a more personal, less political direction:

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Well, I have been several times in your services and have joined in those prayers and have also been privileged to lead them in some settings. I pray very specifically for people whom I know by name. People who either have gone through or are experiencing difficult times, illness, divorce, death, disappointment, all of the life experiences that confront most of us.

I pray for the will of God to be known that we can know it and to the best of our limited ability, try to follow it and fulfill it. I have said many times that, you know, I am a praying person, and if I haven’t been during the time I was in the White House, I would have become one. Because it’s very hard to imagine living under that kind of pressure without being able to fall back on prayer and on my faith.

So I do pray for people in authority. I try to think about what they are going through, even when I disagree with them. Trying to find some common ground, some common understanding that perhaps can make me more empathetic. I don’t always succeed. I will tell you that.

So I pray on a pretty regular basis during the day, because I need that strength and I need that support. And especially when you are in the position that I’m in and that Senator Sanders is in, where you are asking people to vote for you, to give you the most important job, not only in our country, but I would argue in the world.

I think humility is one of the most important attributes that you bring to both that seeking and then if you’re fortunate enough, to that holding of office and that’s what I will try to do.

When Republican candidates are asked about their faith, their answers are expressly political. We are told that God (Jesus Reagan Christ, specifically) has taken sides on issues relating to marriage, reproductive health, discrimination, education — even war and peace — despite the fact that our Constitution specifically prohibits this preference from being enacted as public policy. Presented with the opportunity, perhaps even the expectation, of validating this nonsense, both of the Democratic candidates passed. Even the personally devout one.

They took one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the night and turned it into one of the more memorable ones.

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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