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.
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.