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.
Should we expect that a secular leader will be more likely to promote a healthy pluralism than a candidate with explicit religious beliefs? In theory, both should be capable of understanding the concerns of diverse constituents and balancing them with the law and common good. But in at least one respect, a candidate of faith—supposing they are qualified to adequately lead our country—may have an advantage. They understand what it is like to be a member of a challenged group. This perspective grants insight into what is at stake in these debates, and may lead to a deeper commitment to resolutions.
The potential danger of a secular leader is that they see themselves not as a member of a community, but rather as an outside objective observer. Hecht articulates this misconception when she describes Sanders as “a leader with no ‘people’ but the people.” This myth of secular neutrality views religion as a filter we put over our true, natural eyes to shade the world. By removing the filter, we see reality as it “really” is, according to this myth. Yet this inevitably leads us to elevating yourself above religious people, and makes it harder to sympathize with their interests and concerns. If you think Christianity is a filter some people put on to distort their perception of the world, then it’s very difficult to see why Catholic concerns about being forced to pay for contraceptives should be taken seriously. In that way, having “a people” can give empathy and insight into the plights of other peoples in a way that denying all groups but the American people simply cannot.
The faith or lack of faith of the presidential candidates should be of great importance to us, but not just because we want to find one who believes like we do. We should be cautious about incentivizing contrived faith in politicians. But we also need to be aware that a candidate’s faith may in fact give him or her an advantage in advocating for the oppressed, the weak, and the discriminated against.
It will always be possible for whoever is elected president to use their authority to benefit their own people, but at least we can make sure they are equipped with the experience of belonging.
O. Alan Noble, Ph.D., is editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture and an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC. You may not follow him on Twitter.