On February 23, 2016 at a CNN town hall meeting in South Carolina, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders was asked to elaborate on a statement he had said about his belief that “his spirituality is that we are all in this together”. Sanders, a non-practicing Jew, then gave what I consider a brilliant response.
Four days later, Bernie would go on to lose the South Carolina primary by nearly a 3:1 margin, his worst showing yet by far. The group that he did most poorly with was with African-Americans, who made up 61% of the voters that came out, despite the fact that he has a documented background as a civil rights activist. One interesting result from the exit polls showed that only 46% of the African-American voters consider themselves as liberals. More data from ABC here.
Now, there are any number of reasons that Sanders performed as poorly as he did in SC. Part, I am sure, is his insistence on connecting racial issues and economic issues. Another is his lackluster responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially earlier in his campaign. But I think his answers in the video above highlight another contributing factor, especially among more conservative voters; the unspoken belief that no non-Christian candidate is electable.
That the Vermont senator is a strongly moral man is quite apparent, and his political record bears that out with stunning consistency. His message would make any true-blue follower of Christ smile: help the poor and needy, tax the wealthy, protect the planet. But the views he espouses above, no matter how logical or kind, speak to a spiritual point of view that few traditionally-religious people would truly find comfortable. Christianity as it exists today has a significant selfish streak in it that their Founder would not applaud. Salvation today is now a personal, individual thing, and it is considered far better to be right than to be good. This is not a universal malediction on my part, but it is common enough that the image that comes to people’s mind when they hear the phrase “devout Christian” is not one of kindness and mercy and generosity, but one of close-mindedness, pride, and judgmentalism.
So when 54% of a certain voting demographic in South Carolina on Saturday does not consider themselves liberal, I see red flags. An answer like in the video above will not play well to a religiously conservative crowd. The moderator asked about a “Creator” in the senator’s philosophy, a question that was neatly sidestepped. There is no clear right or wrong invoked, merely an idea of interconnectedness. Are these ideas logical and correct? Yes, but that doesn’t matter. A great many voters choose their candidates based upon a sense of camaraderie, not logic. Is this person like me? Will they sympathize with my desires and needs? And there is little that a Southern Baptist churchgoer would find in common with a socialist Jew from New England.
I am probably overstating the influence this town hall had on Bernie Sanders’ performance in the SC primary. Hillary Clinton has a relationship with the African-American community that goes back decades, and as I said above, Bernie made many missteps. But it does sadden me that, when at last I see a candidate speaking of a spirituality I resonate with, it seems that those very beliefs and ideas are undermining his electability.