As we enter the final weekend before the Iowa caucuses and with the February 9th New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Bernie Sanders has given himself a legitimate shot at the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in the Hawkeye state and enjoys a comfortable lead in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, over on the GOP side, two strong evangelical candidates—Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—are doing battle with a New York businessman who has won the endorsement of several leading evangelicals and claims that he will keep Christianity in this country “safe” from the intrusion of Muslims and secularists.
If Sanders wins the nomination, the general election could become a political war pitting belief against unbelief.
Bernie Sanders has never been hostile to Christianity. When he spoke last year at Liberty University he tried to find common ground with the conservative evangelical student body. But he has also been open about the fact that he is not “actively involved with organized religion.”
When asked by the Washington Post if he believes in God, Sanders answered: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of organized religion.
If Sanders faces Cruz, Rubio, or Donald Trump in the general election, it is likely that Sanders’s faith, or lack thereof, will become a major issue in the campaign. Of course the GOP candidate will try to exploit the Vermont Senator’s progressive “big-government” views, but this critique will become even more powerful when the Republican nominee starts calling Sanders a godless socialist.
If the religious culture wars spill into presidential politics in this way, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened in American history. In the election of 1800 the nation saw similar attacks made against a skeptical presidential candidate. His name was Thomas Jefferson.
In 1800 the incumbent president, John Adams, represented the Federalists, a political faction with particular strength in New England. Federalist strongholds such as Connecticut and Massachusetts had a long tradition of government-sponsored Christianity. The Federalists in New England worked closely with the Congregationalist clergy in order to ensure that the region would remain Christian in character and be governed by Christian political leaders.
Jefferson was the Vice-President of the United States. Adams defeated him in the presidential election of 1796, but the margin of victory was slim. As the population of the United States began to spread out beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the religious sentiments of the country turned against state-sponsored churches, Jefferson would attract more and more Americans.
But Jefferson’s religious beliefs would present a problem for him in the Federalist-dominated northeast. Jefferson was not a Christian. He was skeptical about doctrines such as the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the divine inspiration of the Bible. He was not the kind of godly president that many New England Federalists thought should be leading a Christian nation.
The attacks on Jefferson’s supposed godlessness were fierce. William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York, was representative of these attacks. He wrote that he was forced to oppose Jefferson’s candidacy because of the Vice-President’s “disbelief of the Holy Scriptures…his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.”
Linn feared that the United States, under Jefferson’s rule, would become a “nation of Atheists.” He made clear that “no professed deists, be his talents and acquirements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place [the presidency] by the suffrages of a Christian nation.” He went so far as to argue that the act of “calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.”
Linn was fully aware that there was “nothing in the constitution to restrict our choice” of a president with religious beliefs akin to Jefferson’s, but he warned his readers that if they elected “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation,” it would be “an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation.”
Jefferson, of course, won the presidential election of 1800 and the republic survived. But if Sanders squares off against today’s defenders of a Christian America it is quite likely that history may just repeat itself.