5 Things Christians Should Know about the Faith of Bernie Sanders

5 Things Christians Should Know about the Faith of Bernie Sanders

Editor's Note: This article (publication date: October 28, 2019) is part of a series leading up to the 2020 presidential election highlighting the professed faith of several of the primary candidates, including Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. Christian Headlines offers these faith summaries as a way of informing voters about the religious beliefs of the candidates.

A self-described secular Jew, Bernie Sanders has been described by some election watchers as one of the least religious presidential candidates since Abraham Lincoln, an ardent Bible reader who shunned organized religion. But trying to pigeon hole Sanders’ religious beliefs would be a mistake as his views—and messaging—are complicated, in part by his own hesitancy to discuss the matter.

Much of what we do know emanated from the 2016 election, in which he challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Here are 5 things to know about Bernie Sanders’ faith:

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1. He Is a Secular Jew

According to a 2016 article by CNN, Sanders rarely discusses his faith and “grows impatient with reporters who try to pry open his soul or delve into his Jewish background.” The network did determine that Sanders and his brother, Larry, attended Hebrew school at an Orthodox Synagogue where they studied the Torah. 

The Washington Post also reported in 2016 that the Sanders family participated in Passover Seders that rotated among neighbors and, as a teen, Sanders was bar mitzvahed and traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz. His time on the “agrarian Israeli collective solidified Sanders' faith in socialism,” CNN reported, adding, however, that it apparently did not deepen his relationship with organized Judaism.

During his first presidential campaign it was revealed that Sanders did not belong to a prayer group and was not a member of any synagogue, saying, "I am not actively involved in organized religion.

 “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

His own brother, Larry, summed it up in just six words.

“He is quite substantially not religious,” the older sibling said.

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2. He Often Gives Mixed Messages When it Comes to Faith

CNN, in fact, said Sanders contradicted himself during one of its town halls when the Vermont senator declared, "It's a guiding principle in my life, absolutely. 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."

Also during that campaign, Sanders responded to his faith during a TV interview with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel in which the host asked the candidate if he believed in God.

"Well, you know, I am who I am," Sanders said, referencing the Old Testament exchange between God and Moses at the site of 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 added. "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."

CNN source Susan Jacoby, a secular historian, assessed his response to Kimmel, saying, “It was the answer of someone who is a secular humanist but doesn't call himself that."

Just this September, a member of Sanders’ staff elaborated on the 2020 hopeful’s beliefs in an article in the Washington Examiner.

"He believes that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts him," the spokesperson said. "That’s his very strong spiritual feeling, and that influences his approach to public policy."

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3. He Is a Staunch Advocate for the Separation of Church and State

According to a supporters’ website, Feel the Bern, “Bernie Sanders supports people’s right to freely congregate, practice, and express their faith. To protect both personal religious freedoms and civic equality, Bernie advocates for the separation of church and state, which allows Americans to honor diversity, respect personal autonomy, and voluntarily choose to practice or abstain from religious faith.”

The site said Sanders also believes “public laws ought to be independent of any one particular faith to maximize religious freedoms for all.” But those protections, in his view, end when it comes to perceived discrimination.

“Religious freedom is not a right to discriminate,” according to Feel the Bern.

That philosophy drove Sanders to vote against the 2001 Community Solutions Act, “which allows federal funds to go to religious organizations that proselytize while providing social services and that engage in employment discrimination based on religion.”

He also opposed the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which ruled business owners cannot be forced to provide contraceptive coverage through the Affordable Care Act if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

“Bosses should not be able to impose their religious beliefs on their employees,” Sanders said in a statement after the ruling.

Two years ago, Sanders grilled Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee for deputy White House budget director, calling him Islamophobic for an article he penned that discussed the central Christian tenet that the only pathway to salvation was through Jesus Christ. In the piece, Vought wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

“In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders said at the confirmation hearing.

After hitting Vought several times on issue, Sanders turned his attention to Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Mike Enzi.

“I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders said.

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4. He Is Driven by Morality—Not Faith

During a 2016 CNN town hall, Sanders emphasized what he saw as a common thread between the world’s major religions.

"I think when we talk about God, whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear," Sanders said. "And, that is: To do unto others as you would like them to do unto you."

By extension, Feel the Bern notes that Sanders “believes social and economic justice connects people of all beliefs.”

In its 2016 article, the Washington Post noted that Sanders “often presents his support for curbing Wall Street banks and ending economic inequality in values-laden terms,” adding he had described as “immoral and wrong” that America’s highest earners in the country own the vast majority of the nation’s wealth.

In that same article, the Democrat contender attributed his Brooklyn upbringing with instilling a sense of morality found in Judaism and other religions.

“I think it is important that a sense of morality be part of our politics,” Sanders said.

In a September 2015 speech at Liberty University, Sanders extolled the Golden Rule, by citing Matthew 7:12.

“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,” Sanders said. “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.’”

Sanders’ former chief of staff, Stanley “Huck” Gutman, a professor of English at the University of Vermont, echoed that sentiment.

“I can’t tell you how seldom we talked about religion,” Gutman told the Post. “He often talks about ‘the ethical thing to do,’ and his ethics are shaped by a concern for social justice and for other human beings that is part of a Judeo-Christian tradition.”

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5. He Is a Fan of Pope Francis

Supporters noted on Feel the Bern that Sanders finds himself “very close to the teachings of Pope Francis,” citing the papal leader’s writings on “structural inequalities, systemic discrimination, and climate change.”

In 2016 Sanders told CNN he was heading to the Vatican “because I am deeply impressed by the teachings of this Pope. He has shined a light for all the world to see, that we cannot continue to tolerate the kind of greed and selfishness that we are seeing in the global economy."

Photo courtesy: Getty Images/Scott Eisen/Stringer

5 Things Christians Should Know about the Faith of Bernie Sanders