“When I try to think about how I came to the views that I hold, there are two major factors,” Sanders said. One was his family’s economic struggles, and the other was “being Jewish,” he said.
“Values voters” — religiously conservative voters — are an unlikely constituency for Sanders. But his answer did show he’s got a way to address questions about faith and values, and perhaps a way to combat the charge from the right that Democrats are secular and therefore lack deep convictions shaped by faith and religion.
That’s a view I’ve written about before on The Fix, such as when it was espoused last year by pastor and Trump adviser Robert Jeffress. That appeals to the view many very religious and conservative Christians have that morality does not exist outside of organized religion and that people who are agnostic or atheist do not have a strong sense of right and wrong.
The idea that the Democratic Party as a whole is “godless” is not supported by data. The vast majority — 75 percent — of those on the left are absolutely certain or fairly certain about their belief in God, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study.
Sanders, who says he’s “not actively involved with organized religion,” said learning about the Holocaust from his family and his faith community as a child — he attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah — taught him about the great harms that human beings are capable of unleashing on other human beings simply for being different.
“How horrible people can be to other people in the name of racial superiority or etcetera has certainly been with me my entire life, and that is why I will do everything I can to end the kind of divisiveness that Trump is fomenting in the country,” the lawmaker said. “The pain that my father’s family suffered in Poland is something that has impacted my life absolutely.”
Sanders in some ways has helped put a face to the country’s growing religiously unaffiliated population. While it is rare to have a leading presidential candidate not identify with a religion, about one in four (26 percent) Americans is religiously unaffiliated, with a religious identity described as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” according to Pew.
Many Sanders supporters are drawn to him because of their own aversion to the influence of conservative Christianity in politics, perhaps especially in the Trump era. Most people — 54 percent — who identify as religiously unaffiliated also identify as Democrats or left-leaning, according to Pew.
Sanders on Thursday sought to show those who look to their faith to shape their sense of morality that he does have deep moral convictions that could align with theirs.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg appears to have been effective at winning moderate voters by pushing back on that. In the days leading up to the caucuses in Iowa, a state with a sizable conservative Christian population, he regularly spoke about how his protestant Christian faith shapes his worldview and has moved him to support liberal policies.
“This is a country that belongs to people of every religion and of no religion, but I’ve been very open about my faith because I want to remind people that you don’t have to vote a certain way because of your faith,” he said Thursday on the View.
As Sanders attempts to win support from those on the left and even independents who point to their faith as a fundamental shaper of their politics, the candidate could find himself in more positions where he may need to share the roots of his moral compass and how it will guide him if he makes it to the White House.