While many policy positions separate Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as they contend for the Democratic presidential nomination, there’s another major difference between them: their religious views. The race contrasts Clinton’s theology, which can accurately be described as somewhat conservative, with the basically secular worldview of Sanders.
Though often labeled as a liberal Democrat, Clinton displays beliefs and practices that set her apart from many on the left. On the campaign trail, she’s made it clear that her Methodist faith is real. “The most important commandment is to love the lord with all your might, and to love your neighbor as yourself,” she told a crowd in Iowa last week. “That is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do.”
Commanded by Christ? That's pretty heavy theology. A skeptic might speculate that this language was just lip service aimed at religious Iowa voters, but Clinton’s track record suggests otherwise. When she arrived in Washington in 1993 she joined a mysterious cadre of religious believers known as “The Family,” participating in Bible studies and prayer circles. As Barbara Ehrenreich reported several years ago, this conservative religious group included powerful figures such as Sam Brownback, Ed Meese, John Ashcroft, James Inhofe, and Rick Santorum. This is hardly a group of liberal religionists, as was made clear by author Jeff Sharlet in his 2008 book on the subject, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
To be sure, despite her fundamentalist bedfellows much of Clinton’s language sounds nothing like the highly moralistic and righteous rhetoric of many conservatives. “I have been very disappointed and sorry that Christianity, which has such great love at its core is sometimes used to condemn so quickly and judge so harshly,” she told the Iowa gathering.
In reporting about Clinton’s comments, Time magazine noted that “such a personal discussion of her faith is rare," and that “she typically does not discuss her Christian beliefs on the campaign trail.” Perhaps this is true, but it’s probably no coincidence that she opted to have the conversation in Iowa, where even Democratic voters tend to be more religious than in other parts of the country, just days before the caucuses. This is especially true since her main opponent is not only a non-Christian, but has religious credentials that, well, aren’t very religious.
Though he was raised in a Jewish household in Brooklyn and attended a Hebrew school in his youth, Sanders is unique as a presidential contender not so much for his Jewish background but for his personal secularity. “I am not actively involved with organized religion,” he said recently, bluntly addressing an issue that so many other politicians tiptoe around.
Sanders would not be so bold as to identify himself as an atheist or agnostic, but he came close when he defined God this way: “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
Such openly secular views are atypical for American politicians, but Sanders could be a trend setter. America’s nonreligious demographic is exploding, from single digits as recently as the 1990s to almost a quarter of the population now, even higher among young people. With the unaffiliated now one of the largest categories of religious identity, might this give more politicians the courage to be open and honest about personal secularity?
It remains to be seen how Iowa voters will view this issue, or whether they’ll even consider it important. After all, Article 6 of the Constitution says that there shall be no religious test for public office—but that doesn’t mean voters don’t sometimes take religious views into account when sizing up a candidate.
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