Yes, Bernie Sanders is Jewish. But he has shown about as much devotion to organized religion as he has to the political establishment. In the unfolding drama of the battle for the White House, he is best cast among the chorus of the “nones” — that swelling 22 percent of the population who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated.
While other Democrats have gotten religion in recent years, testifying to their faith in Jesus as savior and Lord and yoking their public policy views to biblical quotes, Bernie has largely stuck to the Jeffersonian line that religion is a private matter.
Recently, however, he has been drawn out a bit.
- When Jimmy Kimmel asked him whether he was an atheist, Sanders ducked the question.
- When The Washington Post pressed him last month, he said, “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways.”
- And at an Iowa town hall, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “My spirituality is that we are all in this together, and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out in the street, it impacts me.”
As a scholar of American religion, I know I am supposed to take Sanders at his word, slot him as a secular Jew who is, as he put it, “not particularly religious” and leave it at that. Even so, I cannot shake the sneaking suspicion that he is the most Christian candidate in the race.
In a speech in September at Liberty University, whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., recently endorsed Donald Trump, Sanders cited Jesus on the golden rule in Matthew 7:12. He also quoted from an Old Testament passage often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr.: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). These two texts lent Sanders the bookends of his speech, morality and justice, which he said had to a great extent gone missing in a country that “worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money and great wealth.”
That sounds like Pope Francis, whom Sanders has repeatedly lauded. It also sounds like the Christian faith I encountered in my youth in the Episcopal Church. In fact, it sounds like the faith of my Republican mother who, after hearing of a homeless man who froze to death just miles from our Cape Cod home, joined forces with her minister and her best friend to establish the region’s first homeless shelter.
It must also be remembered that Jesus was a Jew, and that the historical Jesus bears almost no resemblance to the American Jesus conjured up in the late 1970s by the religious right and trotted out nowadays by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and other Republicans desperately seeking the white evangelical vote.
If the Bible is your guide, Jesus said nothing, ever, about abortion. He did, however, tell us to love our neighbors, including those Samaritans, the Mexicans and Muslims of his time. And he demonstrated a clear preference for the blessed poor over the filthy rich.
Jesus was also fully conversant with the prophetic tradition of Isaiah and Amos, whose faith focused first and foremost on justice for all in this world rather than salvation for some in the next.
When Jesus turns up in a synagogue in the Gospel of Luke, he does not condemn homosexuals. He does not prophesy that a man named Trump will one day become the “greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
Instead, he reads from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
Televangelist Kenneth Copeland says Cruz is “anointed to be the next president of the United States.” Sanders would never presume to say that about himself. Neither would I. Still, I can’t help but think that the spirit of the Lord hovers far closer to Sanders’ “political revolution” than to the patently unChristian efforts of cultural conservatives to wall off Samaritans, enrich the rich, or refuse to allow rape victims to terminate pregnancies.
I don’t bring my Bible into the ballot box. But if you do, if you consult with Jesus on Election Day. Don’t say you weren’t warned if he tells you he is casting his lot with Bernie, the secular Jew.
(Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, is the author of the new book “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).” This column first appeared in USA Today)