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Sanders made history as a non-Christian primary winner. But that shouldn’t be surprising.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reacts on stage during a primary night rally in Concord, New Hampshire, on February 9, 2016. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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Bernie Sanders just became the first non-Christian to win a presidential primary, and while that is unique, it says a ton about American religion today.

Much has been made – in news outlets including the Washington Post – of Sanders being the first Jew and first openly secular candidate to get so far. But as an unaffiliated person who talks about faith in spiritual terms and seems reticent about the explicit blend of religion and politics, Sanders is a very common American. Americans who are unaffiliated are now 23 percent of the population – second only in size as a “faith community” to evangelicals, who are around 25 percent.

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Experts on religion and politics who are watching the thus-far muted U.S. reaction by voters to Sanders’s faith say he embodies a lot about 2016 American religion, which is in a period of transformation.

Peter Manseau, a writer on U.S. religious history, said a lot of Americans relate to the way Sanders answered a question recently on CNN. Sanders was asked: What would you say to religious voters who want faith to be their president’s guiding principle?

Sanders said he would not be running “if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings…my spirituality is that we are all in this together.”

Here's a look at the racial, political and economic make up of New Hampshire. (Video: Julio Negron, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Manseau said the answer was “very savvy” when you consider the American religious landscape today – particularly the high number of unaffiliated voters. This is especially true in certain states, including New Hampshire, the place with the lowest percent of voters who say they are “very religious.” That is 20 percent, according to Gallup.

“Look at the way he reframed the question so it was not a God question anymore, it was a human interaction question. That his faith is based on our responsibility to each other, vs. to a higher power,” Manseau said. “This was very effective for a politician because, given the religiosity of the [overall] voting public, answering in the negative would not help him.”

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Princeton University Professor Kevin Kruse, a historian who focuses on religion, said the “lack of discussion” so far about Sanders’s non-Christian, non-affiliated faith “is kind of amazing. This is certainly a milestone.”

Kruse noted the stark contrast to other, past minority candidates, including Joseph Lieberman, a Modern Orthodox Jew who was the Democratic nominee for vice president (with Al Gore) in 2000 and who ran again for president in 2004. He never won a state primary. Barry Goldwater’s paternal grandfather was Jewish, but Goldwater identified as an Episcopalian, Kruse said.

There was much more conversation about Lieberman’s Jewishness than there is of Sanders’s, Kruse said. Catholics were once seen as minority faith candidates, and Kruse noted the intense discussion when John F. Kennedy ran and the famous speech he gave to Baptist ministers in 1960 vowing that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

John Kerry was criticized in 2004 by many Christian conservative leaders for appearing in their view to violate his faith by supporting the right to abortion. “Things have flipped completely,” Kruse said.

However, the Kennedy era – religiously speaking – was also one of great flux, and his Catholicism played a more complicated role than is often portrayed, Kruse said. Around World War II, along with strong anti-Catholicism, there was a parallel rise of “an image of a tri-faith America, that Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism were all considered ‘religions of democracy.’ So there was a lot going on then, as now.”

The voting landscape is quite different than when Lieberman ran in 2000. Religiously unaffiliated voters had been less than 10 percent until then, according to the General Social Survey, and evangelicals – who have played a huge role in recent years in elevating religion in politics – weren’t “solidified as a voting bloc,” as they are now, said Jacques Berlinerblau, a sociologist at Georgetown University who has written several books about the role of religion in public life.

The unaffiliated – often called “the Nones” – are “almost to a characteristic a Sanders voter,” he said.

Aside from Sanders being unaffiliated, Berlinerblau said the candidate “has to figure out now what type of Jew he wants to be.” The unaffiliated, cultural Jew who talks about spirituality “is on safe ground” in the primary season, he said, but what happens in a general election? Or as the fight moves into the South?

“He’ll have to look back to the Lieberman model, the Jew that evangelicals love and respect because he conforms to their idea of what a Jew should be: Keep kosher, go to [synagogue],” said Berlinerblau, who is director of Georgetown’s Program for Jewish Civilization.

While Sanders is a stand-out as a presidential candidate for his open discussion of his lack of affiliation, he is mainstream as a Jewish American. One-third of Jews belong to a synagogue, according to new data from Pew Research, and Jews overwhelmingly say working for justice and leading an ethical life are much more important ways to measure “being Jewish” than observing Jewish law.

“He’s leading a Jewish life very similar to that led by many other Jews,” Berlinerblau said.

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