Last night, Bernie Sanders was asked about his religious practice, and he told a town hall in Derry, N.H., that he is a very religious person.
Everybody practices religion in a different way. To me I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings. I believe as a human being that the pain one person feels– if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs– you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me, and I worry very much about a society where some people spiritually say, It doesnt matter to me, I got it, I don’t care about other people. So my spirituality is that we are all in this together. And that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, that impacts me. That’s my very strong spiritual feeling.
It was a sincere humanist answer that got big applause. Sanders did not reference organized religion: not his own Jewish background, or his respect for Pope Francis, which surely stems in part from his wife Jane’s Catholic faith. By contrast, Hillary Clinton later spoke of a minister and rabbis from whom she draws inspiration.
Sanders’s unaffiliated-but-spiritual answer also reflects a key part of his appeal. He is winning young people by an overwhelming margin (84 percent of those under 30). And young people are the ones driving the fastest-growing religious group in America: religious “nones.” People who may well be religious but don’t go in for traditional religious organizations. Last year the Pew Research Center came out with the stunning news that while mainline religious identification was dropping, people who said they were Unaffiliated– religious “nones”– made up nearly a quarter of the population, up from one in six in 2007.
And the trend was most pronounced among the young:
Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33).
Last week Pew came out with another study saying that Religious Nones are playing a surprising role in the election campaign. They are helping to drive the Trump phenomenon, inasmuch as Republicans don’t see his lack of religion as a bar, and they are also helping out Bernie Sanders. Look at this:
The fact that Sanders is Jewish wouldn’t be a hindrance, according to that survey. This question shows that 10 percent of people would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is Jewish; far more would be concerned about an evangelical Christian candidate (20 percent) or a Muslim (42 percent).
Other survey results suggest that religious None’s have more and more influence on American political life. If you look at that chart above, religious None’s are not nearly as concerned about a Muslim candidate as American Christians are. And the number of Americans who would object to an atheist being president is crashing.
My point is simple: Bernie Sanders is winning adherents among the young because he shares their religious values. He doesn’t talk about priests and rabbis. He talks about spiritual moral questions in a language that anybody can understand. Just because they’re religiously unaffiliated doesn’t mean that the None’s aren’t spiritual. A lot of us are like Sanders himself, trying to find moral guides to navigate a complex and unfair American landscape.
Sander is also intermarried; and Pew says that the young are intermarrying like crazy:
Religious intermarriage also appears to be on the rise: Among Americans who have gotten married since 2010, nearly four-in-ten (39%) report that they are in religiously mixed marriages, compared with 19% among those who got married before 1960.
There are two lessons to me from this data.
One is parochial and Jewish. The most plausible Jewish presidential candidate in history — according to Chris Hayes, the first Jew to win delegates to a national convention — is an assimilated Jew who speaks in universalist terms. (I pray to the great spirit that Sanders gets rid of his vestigial Zionism, but in the meantime he is a rebuke to the Jewish community’s effort to stop intermarriage and assimilation by raising the walls on their community.)
The second lesson is that the mainstream media should stop trashing Sanders as an oddball and just watch the deep connection he is making with a little more respect. Chris Matthews keeps putting Sanders down as a 60s relic who’s pie-in-the-sky (as opposed to a disciplined principled man). A young writer (impersonating an old person) in the New Yorker the other day said he’s intemperate and nutty.
A fist-shaker and haranguer who makes the “Yakety Yak” dad look chill, the nutty great-uncle at the Seder table who insists on debating the morality of the Ten Plagues while everyone else is dying to just eat already.
This is just a smear, a portrayal of Sanders as a “nudnik,” Yiddish for a tedious pest. The man we saw on the stage in Derry last night is a solemn and serious person who is politically astute: he knows how to listen to ordinary people. Young people see their values reflected by him for good reason. And many are making a spiritual connection to him.