CNN’s religion editor has a long but interesting piece on Sanders’ history of refusing to either pronounce himself an atheist/agnostic or insinuate he has some deep, private faith he doesn’t want to talk about. Instead, Sanders does pretty much what Donald Trump does when asked about religion. He expresses a vague respect for it and then changes the subject to something he feels more comfortable talking about:
Though raised Jewish, Sanders says that he is “not particularly religious,” nor is he a member of any congregation or synagogue. “I am not actively involved in organized religion,” he has told reporters.
But at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire in February, Sanders seemed to contradict himself.
“It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely,” said the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate.
“You know, everyone practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”
Having religious feelings is not the same thing as believing in a particular faith. It seems fairly clear that Sanders’ beliefs don’t have any sectarian content. On the contrary, when asked he usually emphasizes the moral principles, such as the golden rule, which he believes are common to all faiths:
After questioning whether the socialist senator swims too far from the political mainstream to be elected president, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders if he believed in God.
“Well, you know, I am who I am,” Sanders said, evoking God’s evasive answer to Moses through the burning bush. “And what I believe in, what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together — that I think it’s not a good thing to believe, as human beings, that we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people.”
“And this is not Judaism,” Sanders continued. “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.”
Sanders is not a religious man but even in the Democratic party that can be a problem which may explain why Sanders deflects the question rather than announcing himself a non-believer:
Speeches alone won’t attract religious voters to Sanders, said Marvin A. McMickle, director of the Black Church Studies program at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in New York.
“We hear the words, but words can be memorized. I want to know more about the sources of those words. I want to know the rock he is standing on.”
If by rock, McMickle means a specific faith, the answer is that Sanders doesn’t stand on any of them. That could be one reason why he has been largely spurned by black voters despite his long history of involvement with the civil rights movement. A 2007 Pew survey found black Americans were more religious than Americans in general:
African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life. Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another…
As we saw earlier today, Bernie Sanders isn’t the only candidate in the 2016 race who has an awkward relationship with religious faith. Trump and Sanders–the billionaire and the socialist–maybe be polar opposites in many ways but both seem not to have devoted much of their time or interest to religious faith.