"It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely, it is," Sanders said Wednesday (Feb. 3) when a New Hampshire voter asked him about his faith. "Everybody 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."
The statement came a week after the Vermont senator told The Washington Post he is "not active in any organized religion" but believes in God. That statement prompted a number of pundits -- atheist and otherwise -- to describe Sanders as the first "none" to run for president, referring to people who have no religious preference.
"Sanders defines God in a very different way than the way most Americans do, and in fact, a way that would be compatible with nontheistic humanists," Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Center for Freethought Equality, told The Huffington Post after Sanders' interview with The Washington Post appeared.
Lauren Nelson, writing on the popular blog Friendly Atheist one day after the town hall, described Sanders' response as a "punch to the gut."
"Here was a candidate who, throughout decades of public service, had always been a staunch advocate for keeping religion out of politics, and he was saying that religion was the reason he was running?!" Nelson wrote. "Sanders, who has in the past indicated that his Judaism was a function of culture instead of belief?! HOW COULD HE BETRAY US?!"
Nelson eventually concluded Sanders' religion is "empathy" and said she could support that. Other viewers seemed to be equally forgiving, at least on social media.
"Shame that you can't openly come out as an atheist and still have a chance to get elected," @bensouthard tweeted during the town hall.
And @MBrothers22 tweeted, "This (is) what an atheist says when they don't want to offend anyone."
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Roy Speckhardt as the executive director of American Humanist Association. He was speaking in his capacity as executive director of the Center for Freethought Equality.
(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS)