I’m intrigued by Bernie Sanders. When he initially announced his presidential bid for 2016, I thought this must be a publicity stunt, an attempt to promulgate his left-of-everyone political brand. One need not be a political science professor to see that he should be too liberal to be a truly viable presidential candidate. Surely, I thought, he can’t remain in the race for too long, and I awaited his inevitable fall.
But Sanders is defying expectations, amassing more supporters than almost any other candidate in the field. Just a few days ago, he addressed a crowd of almost 28,000 in Los Angeles, and the zeal his proponents have for him suggests that this is just the beginning. Suddenly, “BERNIE 2016” signs are becoming ubiquitous (perhaps even at ultra-conservative Liberty University), and it is difficult to avoid mentioning his name in regards to presidential politics.
As Faithful Democrats, it may appear strange to support or even look fondly on Bernie Sanders as a presidential hopeful. He’s more culturally religious and he has stated that his Jewish heritage determines much of his moral framework. This general appeal to secularism would seem to put him at odds with what many progressives of faith desire.
Counter to any preliminary assumptions, many Democrats of faith are finding accord with Sanders’ message. They are discovering that his values complement their own because what he wants for the American people is congruous with their own aspirations. He calls for police reform, increased political attention to climate change and a vehement repudiation of the Citizen’s United ruling. With infrastructure and requiring a living wage at the forefront of his campaign, Sanders is garnering endorsements from all corners of the American electorate.
Furthermore, though Sanders is not overtly religious—nor does he use his faith as a convenient way to secure votes—he is not dismissive of belief in toto. On the contrary, he seems sincerely appreciative of what faith contributes to people’s lives. In addition, he has been a vocal advocate of Pope Francis, claiming he feels “very close” to the teachings of His Holiness. While many right-wing politicians struggle to sift out which pieces of Francis’ philosophy will be agreeable to their voting base, Sanders genuinely embraces the ideology and social policies of this radical Pope. What’s more, Sanders was a key voice in ensuring Pope Francis would address a joint session of Congress during his visit to America this September, and we could expect the senator from Vermont to use this historic tour to display his appeal to faith voters.
In my mind, the reason Sanders has been such a firestorm on the political scene since his announcement in May is because he has tapped into an ideal that resonates with many on the left. Throughout his campaign, Sanders consistently relays the Democratic axiom that America is at its best when it struggles for progress. This principle rang true for exemplars of liberal politics — FDR, JFK, and LBJ, among others. Indeed, his recent surge in the polls is evidence that people of disparate value systems can still have compatible values, and that voters who possess closely-held beliefs can still acknowledge the merits of a candidate like Sanders.
Astute readers of this blog might find this message odd coming from me, given that just two months ago I wrote a piece discussing the ways Hillary Clinton is the premier candidate for progressives of faith. And frankly, I still think that’s the case. Not only do I have qualms with Sanders’ platform, but I continue to believe Clinton offers the ideal combination of traits Democrats are looking for. With the most substantial résumé and the widest base of supporters, Clinton still has the greatest opportunity to win the general election and the best chance to implement those policies that faith progressives lobby.
But that’s not to say Sanders brings nothing to the Democratic primary, nor does it automatically make him a liability for Hillary. Rather, I think he’s good for this race: his policies and verve force us to think deeply about what we want in a candidate. Regardless of how the next several months play out, Clinton will need to pay close attention to Sanders and his devotees, as they will all push her to be her best.
Like the “Bern” not, Sanders is good for the primary season, as well as general atmosphere of 2016. Even if he can’t win the White House, he plays the gadfly well, illuminating what we as a faithful American people want to be, and what we could be.
Jacob Marthaller is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and Coordinator of the Religion and Film Project for the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion. His research interests lie primarily at the confluence of politics and theology.