Growing up, Bernie Sanders followed the path of many young American Jews. He went to Hebrew school, was bar mitzvahed and traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz.
But as an adult, Sanders drifted away from Jewish customs. And as his bid for the White House gains momentum, he has the chance to make history. Not just as the first Jewish president — but as one of the few modern presidents to present himself as not religious.
“I am not actively involved with organized religion,” Sanders said in a recent interview.
Sanders said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner.
“I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” he said. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
Sanders’s religious views, which he has rarely discussed, set him apart from the norm in modern American politics, in which voters have come to expect candidates from both parties to hold traditional views about God and to speak about their faith journeys.
Every president since James Madison has made the pilgrimage across Lafayette Square to worship at St. John’s Church at least once, according to the White House Historical Association. Only three presidents, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, have been unaffiliated with a specific religious tradition,according to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life. And President Obama and his predecessors have regularly hosted clergy for White House prayer sessions.
Sanders’s chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, emphasized her lifelong affiliation as a Methodist during an exchange Monday with voters in Iowa. Clinton did not mention Sanders, but her words underscored the stark contrast between her more traditional approach and that of her rival.
“I am a person of faith. I am a Christian,” Clinton said. “I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support that I have received starting in my family but through my church.”
For Sanders, rejecting the formal trappings of religion adds to the unconventional nature of a candidacy that has energized many liberals but could prove problematic in a general election. He is a self-described “democratic socialist” who has refused to shy away from policy positions that would expand government and increase taxes.
Sanders often presents his support for curbing Wall Street banks and ending economic inequality in values-laden terms. He recently described it as “immoral and wrong” that the highest earners in the country own the vast majority of the nation’s wealth.
Even so, Sanders has appeared reluctant to delve into discussions about his faith, prompting many to assume on social media that he is more secular than God-fearing.
When late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders in October whether be believes in God and if that matters to the American people, the senator seemed to avoid a direct response:
“I am what I am,” he said. “And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”
Sanders, 74, told The Washington Post that his upbringing as the son of an immigrant father and first-generation American mother in Brooklyn instilled in him a sense of morality found in Judaism and many other faiths.
“I want to be treated with dignity and respect, and I want other people to be treated with dignity and respect,” he said.
“I think it is important that a sense of morality be part of our politics.”
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