Is Bernie Sanders the Most Christian Candidate In the 2016 Race?

Bernie Sanders at Liberty University [Photo via AP]
Bernie Sanders at Liberty University [Photo via AP]
Yes, Bernie Sanders is Jewish. But he has shown about as much devotion to organized religion as he has to the political establishment. In the unfolding drama of the battle for the White House, he is best cast among the chorus of the “nones” — that swelling 22% of the population who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated.

While other Democrats have gotten religion in recent years, testifying to their faith in Jesus as savior and Lord and yoking their public policy views to biblical quotes, Bernie has largely stuck to the Jeffersonian line that religion is a private matter. Recently, however, he has been drawn out a bit.

When Jimmy Kimmel asked him whether he was an atheist, Sanders ducked the question. When The Washington Post pressed him last month, he said, “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways.” And at an Iowa town hall, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “My spirituality is that we are all in this together, and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out in the street, it impacts me.”

As a scholar of American religion, I know I am supposed to take Sanders at his word, slot him as a secular Jew who is, as he put it, “not particularly religious” and leave it at that. Even so, I cannot shake the sneaking suspicion that he is the most Christian candidate in the race.

In a speech in September at Liberty University, whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., recently endorsed Donald Trump, Sanders cited Jesus on the golden rule in Matthew 7:12. He also quoted from an Old Testament passage often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr.: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). These two texts lent Sanders the bookends of his speech, morality and justice, which he said had to a great extent gone missing in a country that “worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money and great wealth.”

That sounds like Pope Francis, whom Sanders has repeatedly lauded. It also sounds like the Christian faith I encountered in my youth in the Episcopal church. In fact, it sounds like the faith of my Republican mother who, after hearing of a homeless man who froze to death just miles from our Cape Cod home, joined forces with her minister and her best friend to establish the region’s first homeless shelter.

It must also be remembered that Jesus was a Jew, and that the historical Jesus bears almost no resemblance to the American Jesus conjured up in the late 1970s by the religious right and trotted out nowadays by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and other Republicans desperately seeking the white evangelical vote.

If the Bible is your guide, Jesus said nothing, ever, about abortion. He did, however, tell us to love our neighbors, including those Samaritans, the Mexicans and Muslims of his time. And he demonstrated a clear preference for the blessed poor over the filthy rich.

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Stephen Prothero

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