Right now, Marco Rubio is basically telling voters to choose him because he’s the most religious of the candidates. Ted Cruz is praying with voters. Mike Huckabee’s supporters are running ads saying not to vote for Cruz because he might not be a sincere Christian. Donald Trump is picking up surprising support from evangelicals.
Yet over on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders might just be the first serious contender for a major-party nomination in modern times who is openly not religious — which would be the most significant religious development of this campaign.
Are Americans ready to elect someone who doesn’t even pretend to be religious to the White House? Maybe not yet — but if the country’s religious landscape keeps changing the way it has been, it could happen before long.
Mostly because Sanders is a Democrat (more on that in a bit), the question of his religious beliefs hasn’t gotten much attention up to now. This is from an article in today’s Post:
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 doesn’t talk about this a lot, so we have to do some inferring about the substance of his beliefs. But what we can say is that he way he describes his conception of God — as a connection that exists between people and other living things — is most definitely not the conception of either the faith he was born in or of Christianity, the dominant faith among Americans. Those monotheistic religions (as well as others) see God as something external, a being with its own intentions, ideas, and decisions. Sanders can call his idea “God,” but a close reading suggests that he could be the first president in American history not to profess a belief in the kind of God most Americans worship. (There have been presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who were accused by their opponents of being atheists, but whatever they privately believed, in their public statements they spoke about God in familiar terms.)
To be clear, I don’t think Sanders’s thoughts about metaphysics should play much of a role in whether anyone votes for him or against him. I’ve long argued that voters should care about the substance of a candidate’s religious beliefs in proportion to the amount the candidate claims those beliefs will influence his or her behavior in office. Sanders isn’t arguing that his ideas about God will determine what course he pursues on Wall Street regulation, so those ideas aren’t particularly relevant. On the other hand, when Marco Rubio says, “I do think it’s important for our president to be someone who is influenced by their faith, especially if it’s Christianity,” then we should know exactly what his faith consists of and how he sees that influence manifesting itself.
At the same time, we should acknowledge that finding a candidate who shares your religious beliefs is one of the worst ways to make your choice, no matter what your beliefs are. If you’re an evangelical Christian, for instance, you probably love Ronald Reagan, who seldom went to church, and you probably dislike the only evangelical Christian ever elected president, Jimmy Carter. (Contrary to popular belief, George W. Bush is not an evangelical; he’s a Methodist, just like Hillary Clinton.) Pick the president you most revere and the one you most despise, and both at least professed to be believing Christians. So as a tool to predict the content of a presidency, which box the candidate checks isn’t much use.
Nevertheless, it’s long been true that Americans say they won’t vote for someone who doesn’t believe in God. Yet that’s now changing. According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans say they’d be less likely to vote for someone who didn’t believe in God. That’s larger than the figure for a Muslim (42 percent), someone who had had an extramarital affair (37 percent), or a gay candidate (26 percent). But it’s also a decline of 12 points from 2007, when 63 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for a non-theist.
Similarly, a Gallup poll in June found that 58 percent of Americans said they’d vote for “an atheist” for president — a low number, to be sure, but significantly higher than the 49 percent who said they’d vote for an atheist in 1999, not to mention the 18 percent who said so in 1958.
And that number will probably continue to rise. It’s older people who are most resistant to a non-religious president, while young people have much less of a problem with it. And most importantly, the ranks of secular people are growing. This is probably the most significant development in American religious life in recent years; the ranks of what are sometimes called the “Nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation — have exploded in recent years. According to Pew’s data, the Nones went from 16 percent of the population to 23 percent just between 2007 and 2014, and they too are more heavily concentrated among the young, while the oldest generation is the most religious.
It’s important to note that many of these people with no religious affiliation don’t call themselves atheists, and many say they believe in some version of God; there’s plenty of diversity within that group. But they constitute a growing portion of the electorate for whom religion isn’t all that important and who don’t demand candidates whose religious views mirror theirs. And they make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate.
All that means that over time the chances of one of the two parties nominating someone who doesn’t believe in God will continue to rise. It will probably be a Democrat, and it might be a Jew, since atheism may go down a bit easier with a candidate who simultaneously has membership in a religious group (since Judaism is a religion but also a cultural affiliation born of tradition and heritage, many Jews comfortably think of themselves as both Jewish and atheist).
To come back to where we started, I may have my own suspicions about what Bernie Sanders believes deep in his heart. But his rather broad conception of God not as a guy with a long beard sitting on a cloud but as a force running through all living things — in other words, something that doesn’t punish you for your sins or hear your request for a good grade on your algebra exam — is still at odds with what most Americans believe. But to his voters, and most in the Democratic Party, it just isn’t all that important. His candidacy isn’t based on an argument that Sanders is just like you; rather, it’s trying to be a movement of those fed up with the fundamental course of American politics. There are many reasons why you might not support Sanders, but he could help make the idea of a non-religious candidate less controversial and anomalous.
And consider this: if Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination, the party of religious Christians will have nominated someone of laughably insincere religious belief. Despite his claim that he finds the Bible to be an even greater book than The Art of the Deal, Trump doesn’t appear to believe anything even vaguely related to Christianity (among other things, he’s such a high-quality performer at life that he has never asked God for forgiveness). So while a candidate’s faith still matters a great deal to many people, maybe the 2016 election will find voters in both parties relatively unconcerned with whether their favored candidate worships — or doesn’t — in the same way they do.