Bernie Sanders’s Religion Problem

U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Senator Sanders leads a hearing on "The State of VA Health Care" on Capitol Hill in Washington
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a Senate hearing in 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

There is a spectre haunting Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, but it isn’t the one you’re thinking. I’m talking about the other “S” word—not socialism, but secularism. It is a facet of the Sanders candidacy that has garnered recent attention, but the depths of which have not really been plumbed.

Below I lay out an argument for why the religion question is a difficult one for Sanders to answer. This requires several steps: first, establishing that Sanders is himself non-religious. Second, it argues that from a strategic standpoint Sanders will want to adopt a non-religious identity as well. Not only does this energize his millennial base, it also seemingly addresses the likely barrage of coded attack ads that opponents will air.

Ultimately, I suggest that even if it makes sense for Sanders to engage such a strategy, it would likely hurt him more than help. To do so I use polling data, along with established political science research. While these data do not demonstrate a causal relationship, taken together they are nonetheless illustrative. Most importantly, they show that Sanders risks ostracizing the most loyal Democratic base—African Americans—even as he tries to integrate appeals to the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Is Bernie Sanders Jewish? Or is he non-religious?

The answer to this question depends upon how we define what it means to be Jewish. There is a religious definition and a cultural one. To start, Sanders grew up in the Jewish faith. He went to Hebrew School, was bar mitzvahed, and even worked on a kibbutz in Israel. Insofar as Judaism is a religion, Sanders was Jewish in his youth.

Yet as an adult he has fallen away from Jewish practices, eschewing organized religion. When Lester Holt recently asked Sanders whether he reflects on the possibility of becoming the first Jewish president, his cagey response is telling: “In terms of religion I am very proud of my Jewish background. And it has had a significant influence on me.” Let us also not forget that on Rosh Hashanah this year, when observant Jews were taking the day off from work, Bernie Sanders was at Liberty University delivering a speech about his non-faith.

If we take Bernie’s word for it, he is what Americans have come to know as “culturally” Jewish. While there is no single definition, there are constellations of beliefs and sympathies that constitute “cultural Judaism.” One of these, as Mark Leibovich’s profile in the New York Times explains, undoubtedly affected the young Bernie Sanders:

Sanders’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, Eli, a struggling paint salesman who saw his family wiped out in the Holocaust, worried constantly about supporting his wife and two sons. His mother, Dorothy, dreamed of living in a “private home,” but they never made it beyond their three-and-a-half-room apartment on East 26th and Kings Highway. She died at age 46, when Bernie was 19. “Sensitivity to class was imbedded in me then quite deeply,” Sanders told me.

So while Sanders grew up Jewish, was influenced by forces that affected the Jewish community in New York specifically, and shares many identifies we associate with Jewish Americans, he would not identify as religiously Jewish.

Should Bernie run as Jewish, or as non-religious?

Grasping Sanders’s cultural, rather than religious, Judaism is vital to understanding his prospects in the coming election for one reason: in elections it does not matter what a candidate believes (about God or anything else), but what the electorate thinks he or she believes.

Public opinion data show there would likely be a difference between “Sanders the Jewish Democratic nominee” and “Sanders the Atheistic Democratic nominee” (which, after all, is what Sanders would be branded for many). Let’s unpack why.

To begin, a Gallup poll from June of last year shows that Americans were less likely to support an Atheist for president than almost any other type of candidate. Only 58% of respondents said they would consider voting for a qualified Atheist, versus 40% that said they would not. (For the record, the only identity that garnered lower support for Atheists was—you guessed it—Socialists, with a 47/50 split). This same poll suggests that Americans would overwhelmingly consider backing a Jewish presidential candidate, with a full 91% of respondents supporting such a candidacy (only 7% say they would not).

On the face of it, then, Sanders’s tactic would seem simple: pay enough homage to his Jewish background that he can plausibly be conceived of publicly as a Jewish candidate. This strategy would have the added benefit of offering Sanders some cover from religious attacks: it is difficult to imagine an “anti-Jewish” ad not being met with accusations of Anti-Semitism. Yet there are a few difficulties with Sanders adopting this tactic.

First, it would risk seeming disingenuous. For a campaign built around honesty, not only would such a claim be an uphill PR battle (given his public speeches outlining what could charitably be portrayed as his loose religiosity) but also there is every chance that Sanders would not feel comfortable endorsing the strategy. This would arguably be a non-starter.

Second, even pretending that Sanders adopts a more observantly Jewish public persona, as opposed to being non-religious, it is not clear that this would help him achieve his get out the vote strategy. To begin, it would not win over those already opposed to his candidacy (e.g. conservatives that would be immediately turned off by the Socialist label). More importantly, there is a real danger that back peddling on his avowed non-religiosity would hurt Sanders among his base. Again, to the numbers:


Again, initially it would seem Sanders actually does better, from the vantage point of damage control, by highlighting his Jewish background. But this would be to forget that his base—which he needs to activate in the primary to beat Clinton, and (potentially) the general to beat whoever the GOP nominates—is narrower still.

Go to any Sanders rally or visit just about any college campus, and it becomes clear that Sanders’s target demographic is not so much Democrats as it is the young. They are buying his “Feel the Bern” merchandise and posts about him dominate their social media networks. As one article put it recently, Sanders is “their Cool Socialist Grandpa.” Accordingly a substantial amount of reporting has focused on Sanders’s ability to appeal to millennials, and with good reason: in some polls he is neck-and-neck with Clinton among 18-29 year olds, and in others he leads her.


The Sanders strategy is therefore to increase youth turnout. And as the Gallup data above suggest, this potential edge among the young may come not from highlighting his Jewishness but from highlighting his non-religiosity. A full 75% of young respondents would support an Atheist. Recent polling from Pew confirms this belief that Sanders is the preferred candidate among non-religious Americans.


But this is exactly Sanders’s problem: he does well with millennials (and non-religious Americans) in large part because he is non-religious himself. These secular Democratic activists, Geoffrey Layman argues, sound eerily like Sanders supporters:

They are strongly attached to their respective parties, but their political activity is motivated less by a commitment to party and more by a commitment to particular ideological goals than is the participation of their fellow partisans. . . . [The] evidence suggests that in a choice between compromising ideological goals to enhance the party’s chances of electoral success or remaining steadfast in ideological principles even at the expense of partisan electoral defeat, secular Democratic activists and committed evangelical Republican activists are more likely than their fellow partisans to choose the latter (Layman 2001, 148).

While one cannot claim that Sanders would definitely lose his base if he were to temper his non-religiosity, it could potentially turn off some of his most fervent proponents.

To understand why this is a problem, we need to take a brief detour: to what political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell call the “first” and “second aftershocks” of the sexual revolution. The first aftershock sent many Americans—those concerned over moral laxity and spiritual decay—to the Right in the 1970s and 1980s. The second aftershock, caused by the first one, was a pushback against the Religious Right:

For many Americans raised in the 1980s and 1990s [i.e. today’s millennials], religion as they saw it around them seemed to be mostly about conservative politics and especially about traditional positions on issues of sexual morality, like homosexuality. In effect, many of these Americans, who might have been religiously inclined, but were liberal on moral issues, said ‘if that’s what religion is all about, then it’s not for me.’ Thus, the second aftershock, during the 1990s and 2000s, thrust a substantial number of Americans, especially young Americans, in a decidedly nonreligious direction (Putnam and Campbell 2010, 81-82).

The result is the so-called “God gap,” where the Democrats are increasingly secular and Republicans increasingly religious.

Bernie Sanders appeals to a sizable contingent of the Democratic base for several reasons. He has consistently held progressive beliefs, has a public persona of honesty and integrity, and can claim “outsider” credentials at a time when trust in public institutions (again, especially among the young) is at an all time low. In sum, 2016 is a good year to be Bernie Sanders. Millennials are attracted to his candidacy for policy reasons (e.g. free college tuition), as well as his personality.

That said, this article has been laying out a more fundamental reason for that appeal among millennials: Bernie Sanders, simply put, looks like them. In everything but age Sanders is the perfect millennial candidate, beginning with his “spiritual but not religious” mantle. He may not be the first politician to try appealing to an increasingly secular Left, but he is the first candidate in whom the growing numbers of non-religious likely see themselves reflected. And it is clear that Sanders does not want to jeopardize that status.

Ultimately this strategy cannot prevail, for a very simple reason. Bernie Sanders’s energized base is white. Very, very white. One recent Monmouth poll indicates that Clinton has a 50-point advantage over Sanders among Black and Latino voters—71% to 21%.

Sanders supporters may counter, claiming that this is an artifact of name recognition: that Hillary Clinton polls well with reliably Democratic voters, in particular African Americans, because they know her and they do not know Sanders; and that once Sanders gets his message out, his poll numbers among African Americans will rise.

There is undoubtedly logic here, but a plausible claim does not a persuasive argument make. If we look at demographic data, it becomes increasingly clear that Sanders’s “secular” strength with one constituency is the ultimate liability with the rest of the Democratic base.


The data demonstrate a clear divide: Pew found that between 2007 and 2012, the population of “nones” in America grew, but to a far greater extent among the white population. “When it comes to race,” the Pew report says, “the recent change has been concentrated in one group: whites.” Only 13% of the African American population self-identified as nones in 2007; by 2012 that number increased to only 15% (an overall population increase of just 15.4%). Compare that to the white population, which saw an overall increase of 33% (from 15% to 20% of overall population).

The data would also suggest that much of this growth came from millennials: between 2007 and 2012, two populations that contain significant numbers of millennials (B.A. or less, and B.A. grad) increased significantly. The likely explanation is not that older Americans (either with or without bachelor’s degrees) became non-religious, but rather that a new cohort matured into those categories.

In fact, this is precisely what Pew reports:

One important factor behind the growth of the religiously unaffiliated is generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. Among the youngest Millennials (those ages 18-22, who were minors in 2007 and thus not eligible to be interviewed in Pew Research Center surveys conducted that year), fully one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated, compared with about one-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (9%) and one-in-twenty members of the World War II-era Greatest Generation (5%). Older Millennials (ages 23-30) also are substantially less likely than prior generations to be religiously affiliated.

If Sanders is going to succeed in motivating the young, he cannot risk turning them off by “finding religion.” By emphasizing youth turnout, Sanders seems to have committed himself to a strategy of running as non-religious.

Why Religion May Be the New Race in 2016

How did Obama win? Can Sanders repeat his feat? It all comes down to identity: in 2008, Democrats promised to make history by nominating either the first woman or first African American for the presidency. In their book Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears demonstrate how one of these two identities determined which candidate voters supported in the primary.

First some background: during the 1960s and 1970s, Civil Rights legislation became the primary fault line in American politics. While the overall sorting process is complex, the take home point is this: “racial conservatives,” those with traditional views on race (e.g. against interracial marriage) were consolidated into the Republican Party, and “racial liberals,” whose policies were pro-Civil Rights, came to dominate the Democratic Party. In general this holds true today.

Yet as Tesler and Sears show, the sorting was incomplete: the Democratic Party still contains a major cleavage along racial lines (Tesler and Sears 2010, 19). The result was that during the primary campaign in 2008, some Democratic voters were more likely to vote for Obama (racial liberals) and others were more likely to vote against him (racial conservatives).   Tesler and Sears’s analyses suggest that Democratic primary-goers were not voting for Hillary, necessarily, but against Obama.

In the 2008 Democratic Primary election, race was the predominant factor: even though gender mattered to voters, it simply did not matter as much. This observation is important not because a candidate’s race will be as important in 2016 as it was in 2008, but because it demonstrates an important truth: votes are never cast in isolation. The real question is which identity will be given primacy.

This is obvious in 2012, with Mitt Romney’s supposed “Mormon Problem.” Since Romney emerged as a potential presidential nominee in 2008, some have speculated that his Mormon faith disadvantages him with the GOP base. Polls from 2008 and 2012 indicate an interesting political divide. While overall support for a Mormon candidate remains constant over time (about 80% of respondents say they would consider voting for a one), a considerable shift occurred along ideological and political lines in 2012. In 2008, liberals were more likely to consider voting for a Mormon (77%) than were conservatives (66%). Just four years later, when Romney is the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination, Democrats were more tepid (70%) and Republicans overwhelmingly willing (90%) to vote for a qualified Mormon. As of 2015, Republicans remain more willing than Democrats to vote for a Mormon, though both groups have returned closer to the average (79% of Democrats are willing, whereas 84% of Republicans are).

Part of this story is one of acclimatization. Republicans became accustomed to the idea of a Mormon president and growing numbers of Democrats (no doubt fueled by the maturing millennials who aver religion and its connection to political conservatism) viewed Romney—and Mormons more generally—as threatening politically. But as I have said elsewhere, Republican voters may have softened on Romney because he was running against Barack Obama. As with 2008, Obama’s race affected opinions of other political actors around him: as the more extreme “other,” the prospect of Obama winning a second term normalized Romney’s more exotic qualities for the GOP base. To put it crassly, it came down to whether voters were more comfortable with a Mormon or a Muslim.

The 2008 primary shows that when cleavages remain within a political party, latent identifies may be primed to great effect. In the Democratic Primary that year, the identity was race. Mitt Romney’s 2012 prospects show that political and religious cleavages still exist, and that they may affect voter willingness to back a presidential candidate.

Conclusion: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

This will be the first presidential election in eight years where a candidate’s race is not the most salient political primer. Both Clinton and Sanders are white, and for political reasons the GOP candidates—even the Latinos Cruz and Rubio—are tied to conservative policies on immigration. In essence, neither race nor ethnicity look as chronically accessible in 2016 as they were in 2008 or 2012. So what will fill that gap?

As I have outlined here, I believe it will be religion: for much the same reason that race was politically salient in 2008. Bernie Sanders’s strengths are deeply rooted in his non-religious appeal. It is a sizable—if isolated—portion of the Democratic base. There is reason to believe that many in this base, especially the millennials, derive an emotional benefit voting for a non-religious candidate that echoes the jolt that racial liberals got supporting Obama. For some insight, think back to Geoffrey Layman’s analysis back in 2001 of secular Democrats behaving increasingly like the Religious Right in their rigid ideological purism.

These individuals arguably would not gain the same benefit voting for a “Jewish” candidate, even one whose Judaism is more cultural than religious. Furthermore, given the politically dicey ground that Sanders would have to navigate if he emphasized his Jewish identity while at the same time refusing to support Israel over Palestine, the secular identity just makes more sense.

To be clear, these Jewish and secular identities are not, in reality, mutually exclusive. At the same time, in an election it is entirely likely that one message will come to dominate the other. Sanders’s non-religiosity would inescapably color how Americans view his Judaism. In short not only is there pressure on Sanders to run as non-religious from his base, but from a political messaging standpoint it is clear that it will be the chosen angle of attack, should it come to a general election. In short, there is little reason to believe that Sanders’s non-religiosity would remain on the sidelines of the debate.

This is where Sanders’s path to a general election win is severely hampered. It is one thing to win a primary as a non-religious candidate. But for a Democrat to win a general election by relying on a strategy that ostracizes African Americans—one of the most steadfastly Democratic voting blocs—seems unlikely in the extreme. As the recent Pew poll highlighted earlier finds:

Fully half of religiously unaffiliated registered voters (51%) think Sanders would be a successful president, while four-in-ten (42%) think Clinton would be a good or great president. Among black Protestant voters, about six-in-ten (62%) think Clinton will be a “good” or a “great” president, while 36% say this about Sanders.

It is important to remember that these numbers are soft: Sanders’s religion has yet to be made an issue in the campaign. Whether he could gain among religious African American Protestants after being labeled an Atheist is an open question. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine that such an ad blitz would have no effect. A halfway effective media campaign would not have to convince cross-pressured African Americans to vote against Sanders in significant numbers (they likely would remain loyal Democrats), it would only have to dampen African American turnout in November.

The take home from this article is simple: that any discussion of “Sanders’s religion” (or lack thereof) represents perhaps the most difficult hurdle for the former track champion to jump over. This is not to say that Sanders is a bad candidate, or that his policies are wrongheaded. I also do not to mean to denigrate the sincerity of his or his supporters’ convictions. Sanders’s problem is one of practicality.

In many ways Sanders is a candidate strangely ahead of his time. His campaign’s strength comes from playing to a future demographic: one that is far less religious than its predecessors. Whether they turn out in this election, or in future ones, is a question that only time can settle. Given impressive growth in that demographic, however, it is difficult to imagine a future where non-religious Americans do not exert greater influence on the Democratic platform—and even potentially national elections.

The only problem with Sanders is that he—and even we—may not see that swing in our lifetimes.


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