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Spencer Rendahl: Religious Politics

Yes, Bernie Sanders made history in New Hampshire two weeks ago. To me, the significance wasn’t that he won as a democratic socialist – nor that he was the first Jewish American to win a presidential Primary, even though of course, that’s historic. For me, the significant thing was that neither he nor the voters treated his religion as a big political deal.

New Hampshire and Vermont are two of the least religious states in the nation, so the absence of religion in Bernie’s victory might not seem surprising. But with Republican candidates - including twice–divorced Donald Trump – competing for support from the Christian right, I think the fact that Bernie isn’t making his faith a campaign issue is notable.

Bernie acknowledges that he’s Jewish and that members of his father’s family died in holocaust concentration camps. But he considers himself secular. And all this reminds me of the 2008 debate about Barack Obama, who despite his being a member of a Christian church, was accused of being a secret Muslim.

I remember screaming in my head “Who cares?” every time I heard questions in the media about Obama’s religion – which was practically on a daily basis. Call me a political heretic, but I’ve never understood why given our Constitutional separation of church and state, a candidate’s religion should matter.

For me, the most important moment of that election was when former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who served in two different Bush presidencies, endorsed Obama and addressed the paranoid theory that Obama might be a Muslim head-on by saying, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?"

Powell scolded Republicans for making Islam a slur and reminded us that Muslims have died serving our country.

Eight years later, despite New England’s secular leanings, in my small New Hampshire town of 2700 which hosts four churches, a private Christian school, and a fundamentalist Christian retreat center, Bernie walked away with 72 percent of the democratic vote.

Bernie didn’t win the Nevada Democratic Caucus and probably won’t win religiously conservative South Carolina, and who knows about the nomination. But Bernie’s reminding us that there are still plenty of voters willing to declare that religion shouldn’t be a litmus test for leadership, and to me that’s a huge victory.


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