Is Bernie Sanders “Spiritual But Not Religious”?

Galen Watts
Cultural Studies PhD Student, Queen’s University

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Watching the current American election from Canada is like watching a hurricane from a seemingly safe distance, and hoping (perhaps even praying), that it doesn’t come any closer, and that it ends soon.

There have been many theories proposed by media pundits and scholars to make sense of what seems to be a growing polarization between camps in contemporary American (and more broadly, Western-European) politics: populist masses versus cultural elites, nationalism versus internationalism, cultural pluralism versus nativism, support for political correctness versus the allowance of unfettered freedom of speech, the breakdown of traditional ideological structures, Angry white people versus, well, everyone else. Let me say, I think there is some truth to most, if not all, of these proposals, however, I want to here focus on a set of factors (not entirely separate yet nevertheless distinct) that were mentioned quite often early on in the election—at least during the time when Sen. Bernie Sanders was still a possible (however unlikely) contender for the Democratic nomination—and which, I believe, hold interesting insights for scholars of religion. Those being: millennials versus boomers and spirituality versus religion. It’s true that these factors do not explain the polarization entirely—and some might argue they really only apply to divisions on the Left—but nevertheless, I think their further investigation might help us to make sense of an important shift in values and discourses that are taking place in North American culture.

Early in the race for the Democratic nomination, it was often touted that one of the greatest predictors of support for Bernie Sanders was if one was between the ages of 18-34. No doubt, Sanders’ appeal to the millennial generation has to do with a number of things. For instance, many young people in America (and Canada) are deeply frustrated because they find themselves saddled with historically unprecedented amounts of student debt while at the same time facing poor job prospects. Others feel the political establishment ultimately doesn’t serve the interests of the young, and are therefore happy to see a somewhat disgruntled and disheveled old man who self-identifies as a “socialist” railing against those whom they feel don’t really care about them. Moreover, university-educated young people are less likely to associate “socialism” with the Cold War in the way their parents might, and have been (rightly) taught by their Liberal professors that unfettered capitalism is not the social and political panacea that Reagan and Thatcher once suggested. Finally, research has shown that millennials value, above all else, authenticity (or at least what they perceive as “authenticity”). They view any kind of fakery, or skullduggery, as revealing a lack of integrity. They want a person who is true to themselves, not some polished politician who knows how to read a teleprompter well. Sanders seems to them the “real deal.”

Indeed the reasons are multiple and diverse, however, I want to reflect on a possible reason that has not garnered as much media attention as I think it deserves: could it be that Sanders is, despite his not actually articulating it, “spiritual but not religious”?

Research has shown that many millennials self-identify as more “spiritual” than “religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” For my Master’s thesis, I conducted interviews with twenty Canadian millennials who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” in order to gain a better understanding of what contemporary spirituality is; that is, what kinds of beliefs and practices it entails, what moral logics (if any) it espouses, and ultimately what the social and political implications its recent popularity among millennials across North America might be. Of course, millennials in the U.S. and Canada differ in important ways, and therefore will likely hold differing understandings of what “spirituality” without “religion” is, but nevertheless, I would argue, as others have, there are more similarities than one might think. In any case, an interesting observation garnered through my interviews was that the vast majority of my interviewees preferred Sanders to the remaining Democratic and Republican candidates, and I think this is revealing. My argument is that, among other reasons, Sanders appeals to millennials because he speaks the language of “spirituality” and because he embodies, in certain ways, what it means to be “spiritual”—at least to my research participants.

When asked during a CNN interview what his “spirituality” was, Sanders replied, “we are all in this together.” Asked to elaborate, he responded, “Every great religion in the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—essentially comes down to ‘Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’…. The truth is, at some level, when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt … and when my kids hurt, you hurt…. I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t even understand. It’s beyond intellect; it’s a spiritual, emotional thing.”

There are a number of ways in which Sanders echoes what many of my SBNR interviewees articulated. For one, he makes no reference to the existence of a God, or gods. His spirituality is thoroughly immanent—meaning, this-worldly. Nevertheless, he does not positively deny the existence of a higher power. Instead, his “spirituality” is left theologically open to speculation; he suggests that whatever “human nature is about”, is beyond human understanding and therefore cannot be comprehended simply by means of rational or scientific methods of analysis. Second, Sanders stresses that what is “spiritual” is also, in some sense, “emotional”; the truth of his conviction must be on some level felt. Similarly, my interviewees often spoke of how “spiritual” knowledge had to be attained through lived personal experience. Third, Sanders has no problem boiling the “great religions” down to one single principle—essentially, the Golden Rule. Many of my interviewees, although holding different metaphysical justifications for their view, similarly saw all world religions as ultimately teaching this basic idea. They also, in line with Sanders, saw this aligning them with predominantly Liberal, that is, Leftist public policies. Finally, Sanders seems to gesture towards an understanding of human beings as fundamentally interdependent. It’s difficult to know whether he was referring to a purely material interdependence—for instance, the way in which a Canadian’s large carbon footprint might negatively effect the life of a Fijian by means of climate change, or, say, the way in which the winner of the American election will effect the global order—or if he also meant the way in which we are interdependent on a more immaterial (perhaps “spiritual”) level (i.e. via energy levels or spiritual forces). Either way, it seems clear that Sanders’s view is certainly not what most would call “religious” today.

America has never had a president that did not self-identify as “Christian” or “not religious.” Perhaps Sanders’ appeal to those who prefer to be called “spiritual” is one more reason why his being elected would have been revolutionary (and was therefore unlikely). Nevertheless, his resounding appeal among the millennial generation in the U.S and Canada suggests that discourses on “spirituality” as distinct from “religion” are, although perhaps not yet in vogue, becoming more acceptable in American politics. And resultantly, they may come to shape future elections, and North American culture, in important and enduring ways.