For all the discussion about America becoming a “post-Christian nation,” Americans have a hard time electing presidents who aren’t Christian. Perhaps the closest we’ve come in recent years to a president outside of the Christian tradition was Mitt Romney, and many Christian leaders argued against voting for Romney because of his Mormonism.
This election cycle, one distinctly non-Christian candidate is proving to be a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton’s once certain Democratic nomination: Bernie Sanders.
A Washington Post article on Sanders’ religious views revealed that he believes in the idea of God only in the most vague and inconsequential sense: “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” This concept of deity combined with his emphasis on living ethically suggests that Sanders is functionally a humanist, a conclusion Jennifer Michael Hecht draws in her recent article for Quartz.
Hecht argues that Sanders may be precisely the kind of president we need to govern our divided country. We need a president, the logic goes, not driven by particular religious motives but by universal ethics, unity, and compassion. Citing a number of stats that show a rise in non-religious people in America, Hecht implies that a secularizing country needs a secular leader.
This poses an important question for Christians: Given the changing demographics of our country, and the increased tensions between Christians and more secularized forces in our country over issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, what kind of leader is most equipped to navigate these tensions? Should we elect a secular leader, hoping that he or she can arbitrate between various religious groups by avoiding bias? Or should we elect a devout Christian who can better protect our religious interests?
Let’s start with the broader context. Our nation is experiencing a change in the way it participates with religion, particularly Christianity. The vestiges of Christian morality and sensibility are fading further, although this may only be apparent in those areas where our faith rubs up against the broader culture’s shifting views.
Rejecting these older beliefs, our culture is increasingly drawn to the promises of radical autonomy and the satisfaction of forming our authentic selves—the sacredness of Christ loses ground to the sacredness of the self-defined person. As members of a faith that teaches us that we are not our own, but have been redeemed at infinite cost (1 Cor. 6:19–20), we will necessarily run into conflicts with our more secular neighbors as we participate in culture. These conflicts aren’t merely uncomfortable experiences; many of them wind up in the Supreme Court.
In light of this tension between religious and post-religious groups in America, Hecht argues that Sanders is the candidate we need because he can provide a seemingly unbiased perspective: “In a diverse land, imagine the power of having a leader with no ‘people’ but the people.”
In a sense, Hecht is right. It’s not enough that we elect someone who will defend the religious liberties of Christians. The next president needs to be sensitive to the interests and concerns of many groups who find themselves increasingly in tension with one another and the State: Muslims, atheists, Christians, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, black people, poor white people, and law enforcement. There will be laws, court rulings, and policies established in the next presidency that will help define how these groups live together in the near future. We can expect decisions concerning anti-discrimination laws, illegal immigration and refugees, gender and sexuality in public education, religion and gender in the military, and criminal justice reform. One of the most prized qualities in presidential candidates should be a desire to pursue principled pluralism, not merely protecting the interest of one group.