Bernie Sanders Reflects a Changing U.S. Religiosity

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, arrives for a town hall forum
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, arrives for a town hall forum at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. With a week to go until the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic presidential race there in a virtual dead heat, Hillary Clinton and Sanders are mapping out divergent paths toward winning the first votes of the nomination process. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Pool via Bloomberg

Based on my calculations, after Bernie Sanders said his religious beliefs were nondenominational, it took 48 hours for a major news outlet, the Washington Post, to question whether Bernie Sanders could win a general election with his unconventional religious affiliation; being "spiritual" but not a member of an institutionalized religion. The WaPo reasoned that Sanders' perspectives and beliefs "set him apart from the norm in modern American politics."

By such reasoning, we would not have elected an African American president, and a woman would not be leading in many polls to replace him. These days, we might not be served by asking what is within or outside a "norm." You know things are getting strange, in fact, when Nate Silver misses the mark by such a far margin.

This leads me to question why The Washington Post authors start their piece by asking how Sanders can win if not connected to a denomination, and then end their piece questioning whether Sanders is Jewish enough. Their meandering piece bolsters Hillary Clinton's indulging of Zionists while asking why Sanders seems to be trying to hide his kibbutz. Are the authors writing an article obstensibly about Sanders or about presidential ties to pro-Israel organizations? The confusing focus leads the piece to read as more of the media's assault on Sanders as he grows more likely to be the Democratic nominee.

The truth of the matter is that Sanders is not slightly close to being the first President not performing some sort of American Protestantism. Ulysses Grant was unaffiliated with a religion, as was Rutherford Hayes. Andrew Johnson seems to not have mentioned his religious leanings in any way. Abraham Lincoln was unaffiliated and only spoke of "God" in the most general of terms. In terms of diversity, the U.S. Presidents have ranged from Quaker, to Catholic, to Dutch Reformed (Roosevelt). I grant that the "norm" falls squarely in the Christian camp, but saying that we tend not to elect non-Christians is a bit like saying we tend to elect White guys. This 'norm' does not help us in the case of modern American politics.

Sanders may instead be directly in line with the general American population, or at least those under a certain age. The most reliable information on American religious affiliations has for decades been made available by The Pew Research Center. Their statistics show from 2007 to 2014, the population of Americans identifying as Christian fell from about 78% to 70%. Specifically, "mainline" Protestantism dropped from 18% to 14%. Key to the conversation about whether Sanders is out of the "norm," those claiming to be "unaffiliated" rose from 16% to 22%.

As a college professor often teaching about religion, I can tell you that for years my students have increasingly identified more as "spiritual" and less "religious." Many feel that their worldviews are best characterized by a recognition that life has meaning, that the Universe perhaps has a Creator, and that consciousness or some essence continues beyond death. Beyond that, the range seems to have no bounds.

What seems clear to me throughout the last two decades of teaching, and talking weekly about religion in college classrooms, is that we would be amiss to equate religious affiliation with ethical behavior. Some of the most ethical people I know, those working for social justice and environmental preservation for example, are not only unaffiliated with organized religion; they are atheists.

My students know this to be true because they themselves express that what one does for an hour or two on Sunday pales in comparison to those causes for which one works in their daily lives. My students often say that doing good works simply for some better afterlife is self-centered, just with delayed gratification. Rather they consider it their responsibility to care for the oppressed as a means of improving this world now and for the next generations.

On that matter, Sanders is not "set apart from the norm." Rather he might just be THE authentic representative of America's changing religious landscape.