Beliefs Faith 2016 Politics

5 faith facts about Bernie Sanders: Unabashedly irreligious

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTX24BL7
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTX24BL7

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria – RTX24BL7

(RNS) Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — a political independent, a socialist and possibly the most liberal member of Congress — may be a cultural Jew, but he’s campaigned on the idea that people of faith and those with strong moral values can stand together.

He took his pitch — that the separation of church and state honors diversity and respects autonomy — to conservative evangelicals at Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University. He prayed with faith leaders in South Carolina.

And every speech he gives embodies his near-religious fervor for a “revolution” that returns political and economic power to working-class people. 

Here are five faith facts about Sanders.

READ: What do 2016 election contenders believe? Check the RNS ‘5 faith facts’ series

1. He’s Jewish — sort of.

The presidential candidate, 74, was born to Jewish parents and identifies as culturally Jewish. Although by Jewish law he is Jewish, he has freely acknowledged that he is not a religious person.

Sanders has three grown stepchildren with his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, the former president of Vermont’s Burlington College, as well as a grown son, Levi, born prior to his current marriage. Raised Catholic, O’Meara Sanders said in a 1996 interview with the Burlington Free Press that she still practices Catholicism “in my own way.”

As far as religious influences go, Sanders said he finds himself “very close to the teachings of Pope Francis,” and he described the pope as “incredibly smart and brave,” according to USA Today.

2. He grew up in a world of liberal Jewish activism.

Brooklyn-raised Sanders was born to a Polish immigrant father, whose family was mostly wiped out during the Holocaust, and a mother who was the daughter of Polish immigrants, according to a 2007 New York Times profile.

Sanders’ version of socialism is rooted in 20th-century Jewish American leftist politics, which organized for better working conditions and wages, equality for women and civil rights for African-Americans, among other causes.

Sanders has called for free higher education for all Americans, publicly funded elections and a $1 trillion program to restore the nation’s bridges and roads.

3. Millennials feel the Bern.

Sanders has strong appeal with millennials, about a third of whom say they have no religious identity.

Conversely, he may have no appeal with evangelicals and other conservative Christians. He scored a solid zero from Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in its most recent scorecard and a 100 from the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But he was treated with applause by the conservative audience at Liberty University — tens of thousands in person and online — when he said  Americans should stand with the poor. He quoted from the Bible (Matthew 7:12 and Amos 5:24) and told students, “I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions — in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions — and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12.

“And it states: ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’ That is the golden rule. Do to others what you would have them do to you.

“It is not very complicated,” he added.

4. He spent time in the Holy Land.

After he graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964, Sanders spent several months in Israel on a kibbutz, an agricultural collective and one of the Jewish state’s experiments with socialism.

He has voiced criticism of the Jewish state and boycotted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in fall 2015. But Sanders also has stood up to constituents who vilify Israel and who defend Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group that calls for the destruction of Israel.

5. On the campaign trail …

Although he won a handful of states on Super Tuesday, Sanders remains hundreds of delegates behind Hillary Clinton.

But while he battles her on social and economic policies, her faith — like that of the Catholic and evangelical Republican contenders — is not subject to attacks from Sanders.

He prefers to keep the conversation on common ground, with one exception — God.

Asked by Jimmy Kimmel whether he believed in God, Sanders glided past the question to remind listeners: “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.”

It’s not a matter of Judaism or Christianity, it’s the idea, Sanders told Kimmel, paraphrasing Pope Francis, that “we cannot worship just billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.”

But as Sanders soldiers on in the campaign, some Jewish critics are offended that he rebuffs his cultural and religious heritage. Even so, “I think it is very much a statement about America that someone who everybody knows is of Jewish background and has a Jewish name and sounds Jewish from Brooklyn can get several delegates,” Jonathan Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history at Brandeis University, told The Associated Press. “There is a sense that only in America could a Bernie Sanders be a candidate.”

(Lauren Markoe is a national reporter for RNS; Cathy Lynn Grossman contributed to this report)

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • Good for Bernie Sanders for being truthful and right on the topic of religion. Most of the other candidates are completely nonreligious too, but too afraid to admit it, in the chance that they could lose popularity. Who cares what is religion is. As long as he’s maintaining the freedoms that were given to us by this country to practice what we want, who cares. And there SHOULD be a separation of church and state! This is a country designed to give everyone the freedom of religion, or, whether you like it or not, the freedom from religion.

  • This is very important, especially when we look at other countries that don’t have this freedom
    I just saw an article about how they have laws about who and how they can pray at the western wall in Israel
    We shouldn’t take our Freedom of Religion for granted

  • Hillary is the same old same old, she is the establishment 1% class, nothing will change under her, please i beg you do not vote for her bcz she is a women, do you remember Margaret Teacher, war monger fassist British PM,It is about time we the American people buy our own president , we have more money in combine than they can dream of, if Bernie gets will be a president, this is the last time anyone can purchase a president, Citizens united will be defeated, and tax payer elections will be funded, it is cheaper than pentagons F35 plane costing $379 billion and counting,

  • It scares me that so many Republican conservatives lean on the fact that they are “evangelical”. I truly believe in the separation of church and state (which this country WAS founded on) and am mystified by all the use of religion as a premise for being elected. We are a country of many faiths and great cultural diversity, and this is what has made the U.S. such a strong country. Maybe some of us forget that Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian. Go Bernie!

  • it was thatcher and yes she was but I am 67 white non religious and don’t want religion thrown in my face, and I believe in Hilary it’s my right and if you think the republicans hate a black president wait till they stop the world with a socialist jewish sorta person and I’m not a racist I’m just not

  • joan beaumier,
    “….and am mystified by all the use of religion as a premise for being elected. ”

    Politics is the acquisition and exercise of power.
    Religion is the acquisition and exercise of power.
    Politics is corruptible.
    Religion is a corruption.

  • I do wish Sanders didn’t have such a case of hero-worship when it comes to Pope Francis. Francis protects Roger Mahoney and has given him a home at the Vatican. As every Angeleno knows, Mahoney covered up the local child-sex-abuse scandal for years in order to keep his vanity-cathedral-building plans on track. Mahoney should be in prison. Also conferring sainthood on Junipero Sera denied the suffering, and very existence of many thousands of people,

    Stick with the people Bernie, not the elites.

  • I am christian and I do need him to be reglious to be The president is . But for his soul, I hope he discover God, before he dies, but I am voting for him, because of his socialism valves, which are mine too.

  • I met he does not need him to be reglious. He just need to care about America and bring Medicare for all and he got my vote. Please forgive my typos.

  • I beg to differ with – well -apparently everybody. Bernie is very religious, consistently acting on principals such as “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.”

    Bernie is very religious, with a depth that far surpasses most of his political colleagues. He is not, apparently, ritualistic.

  • I have very little respect for politicians who throw their religious around like some kind of prop. Religion is personal.

    The most effective thing a politician can do is to find the common “good” in the great majority of religious teachings and promise to use that as a guiding principle. “Do unto others” is a good one.

    People that just want to flash around a bible, go to church all the time, and condemn others they find less religious…. THOSE are the ones you shouldn’t trust.

    Even Sanders says he likes the new Pope’s ideas, but he’s already criticized him for protecting some of the bad priests. The man is honest and speaks his mind. THAT’s why he’s become so popular.

    Lord knows how he can do that AND be a politician!