The Religion of Bernie Sanders


On last Tuesday’s Democratic town meeting in Columbia, South Carolina, CNN moderator Chris Cuomo asked Bernie Sanders to explain his religious beliefs.  

Here is how the Vermont Senator responded:

Every great religion in the world–Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism–essentially comes down to ‘do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.’ And what I have believed in my whole life[is] that we are in this together….the truth is at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt.  And when my kids hurt, you hurt.

Sanders’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, have been well-documented in this primary season. And his approach to faith and our life together in this world is different from what we are hearing from nearly all the people who are still running for president.

The Republican candidates talk about faith in terms of rights and self-interest. They quote the Declaration of Independence to remind their followers that rights come from the Creator and thus must be protected. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the Gospel from the political philosophy of John Locke.

Until very recently, Hillary Clinton rarely framed her political message, or her talking points about growing-up Methodist, in terms of the common good.  Now she is talking about making America “whole” again and loving one another.

Bernie’s comments about faith echo three distinctly American voices. 

First, he sounds a lot like Barack Obama.

On June 25, 2015, the day the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, Obama invoked a message similar to what Sanders has been saying on the campaign trail:

That’s when America soars -– when we look out for one another.  When we take care of each other.  When we root for one another’s success.  When we strive to do better and to be better than the generation that came before us, and try to build something better for generations to come.  That’s why we do what we do.  That’s the whole point of public service.

Sanders also echoes the American socialists who came before him.  According to historian Nick Salvatore, Eugene Debs, a five-time presidential candidate and the 2oth-century’s most prominent socialist, believed that big corporations were hurting American democracy because their leaders were motivated by self-interest, rather than a commitment to the economic well-being of all citizens.  The problem with the country, Debs and his fellow socialists argued, was that citizens did not understand, to quote Sanders, that “we are in this together.”

By emphasizing community alongside individual rights, Obama and Debs tapped into a longstanding American tradition.  It is a tradition that drives the Sanders campaign today. It is a way of thinking about society that does not come from Denmark or Sweden, but from our Founding Fathers.

The founders of the United States knew from their study of history that a republic is only successful when its members are willing to take care of one another.  This requires individuals to temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good. 

Sometimes the Founders’ language of citizenship sounds foreign, if not dangerous, to a twenty-first century culture that is drunk with liberty.  For example, the Boston patriot Samuel Adams said that a citizen “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”  In 1776, an unnamed Pennsylvania revolutionary proclaimed that “no man is a true republican…that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.”

If Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, were alive today he would probably be labeled a socialist.  Here is what Rush had to say about the purpose of education in a republic: 

Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it. 

Americans could “amass wealth,” Rush argued, as long as it was used to “increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” Rush wanted to “convert men into republican machines.” His vision for a thriving republic would be rejected in twenty-first century America, but it should remind us that citizenship requires obligation and sacrifice to the larger society. It requires exercising the Golden Rule.

Bernie may not believe in God, but he certainly believes in the potential of human beings to create a more just and democratic society.  He should stop talking about Scandinavian nations and start letting people know that his vision is a decidedly American one.

One thought on “The Religion of Bernie Sanders

  1. Bernie the Dinosaur. I love you, you love me…

    Sounds nice to a child, but there are bad men out there who need to be fought, and there are tough decisions that must be made here at home–decisions that should have been made long ago before we saddled future generations with $19 trillion of debt. It is not Christian charity to beggar your children for a sea of faceless others.

    That said, there is definitely a communitarianism in the Founding that both parties in their own way ignore in favor of a radical individualism.

    In sum, for those who adopted reformed Christianity, individualism was limited by faith in God, which included commitment to the believing community. For those who were not content with reformed thought and adopted rationalism, individual liberty was restrained by reason, which again placed the good of the individual in communal context. One mid-18th century source may be taken to exemplify: “Perfect liberty is the Latitude of voluntary Conduct informed by Reason, and limited by Duty” (p. 161).

    It is often observed that we have become a society of all rights and no duties. I want what I want. Now.


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