PHOTO BY DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN
Religion-tinged appeals to voters are often considered the sole purview of the Republican party, particularly when it comes to citing scripture to support political positions. Some of the current crop of presidential hopefuls have been pushing back against this notion, most famously Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who tweeted “God does not belong to a political party” in response to President Trump questioning Buttigieg’s commitment to his Episcopalian faith.
But on the left wing of the party, filmmaker Michael Moore or Ohio Senator Nina Turner, surrogates for Bernie Sanders, are not shying away from matters of faith either. Moore, a Catholic, and Turner, the daughter of an evangelist, are quoting Jesus and proclaiming the “Gospel of Bernie” to the people of New Hampshire.
Sanders has spoken eloquently about how his Jewish background influenced his political and ethical development. At the same time, though many who know him or have met him describe his “spiritual depth,” he has managed to almost completely avoid addressing his beliefs and practice beyond noting that he is “not particularly religious.”
During the 2016 election cycle, Daniel Katz, a professor of history and dean of labor studies at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland, deemed Sanders’ mix of deep-steeped cultural Judaism and commitment to social justice “Yiddish Socialism … the dominant political and cultural current among the working-class Jews of Brooklyn where Sanders was born at the end of the Great Depression,” which Katz says morphed into the Jewish-American support of mainstream Democrats.
One of the few exceptions to the candidate’s avoidance of his own religious beliefs came during a discussion with USA Today about Pope Francis, who Sanders admires for his progressive positions on wealth inequality and climate change.
“I believe that there is a connection between all living things, and that my belief in God requires me to do all that I can to follow the ‘Golden Rule,’ to do unto others and as I would have them do unto me,” he said. “As a public servant, it requires me to do all that I can to ensure that every person lives with dignity and security.
In other words, as filmmaker Michael Moore put it to a packed Rochester Opera House on Saturday afternoon, “Bernie’s campaign is about love and compassion.” Moore went on to call out conservative Christians who reject the candidate’s commitment to Socialist policies.
“The last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” Moore said, pausing to allow people to recognize the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 20:16 and 19:24. “This was from some crazy socialist 2,000 years ago.” Moore then noted the story of how Jesus miraculously fed a huge crowd that had gathered to hear him speak insteading of sending them away hungry.
Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner followed Moore, energizing the crowd with her political preaching, using her roots in the African American preaching tradition to convey what she dubbed “the Gospel according to Bernie Sanders.” That Gospel, according to Turner, includes all the progressive positions that he took in the last election—his alarm about global warming, advocacy for universal healthcare—that have now made their way into the platform of his rivals.
Turner thanked Almighty God for a candidate who cares about the struggle of ordinary people. The former state senator continued, associating Sanders with another great progressive of faith, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also fought to eliminate militarism and poverty alongside his better known campaign for racial justice. Her booming refrains and thinly-veiled shots at the other candidates, namely former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, had the Opera House booming with applause and stomps. Turner ended by having the crowd put “one hand up for yourself and one hand up for somebody else,” which triggered loud applause and a standing ovation as Sanders walked on stage.
One night before, at the Sanders campaign’s watch party in Manchester during the Democratic debate at Saint Anselm College, Turner didn’t need to cue audience members to raise their hands—several did so spontaneously, as if in an evangelical church service, in response to her similarly rousing speech.
Turner often speaks of her religious upbringing, referring to herself as a daughter of an evangelist who went to church eight days a week, and a political leader by profession and a spiritual teacher by calling.
More so than his faith, Moore is known for searing anti-establishment documentaries and leftist politics. But he is a man of faith, and has spoken openly about how his Catholicism informs his political activism. Moore’s 2009 film, Capitalism: A Love Story, features Catholic priests who believe that free-market capitalism is inherently immoral and opposed to Christ’s teachings. In an interview with Sean Hannity that same year, the conservative yapper attempts to label Moore an “unapologetic socialist,” but Moore quickly corrects him, saying he’s simply a Christian.
After a recording of Moore’s podcast, “Rumble,” at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism pop-up newsroom in New Hampshire on Sunday, Moore took a moment to speak with BINJ about faith. Like Sanders, he said, his penchant for social justice and left-wing politics comes from a fusion of culture and faith, both of which stem from his Irish-Catholic upbringing. Moore spent a year in a seminary as a teenager because, he says, he “wanted to do something to better the world.”
Moore believes that socialist politics, far from being in conflict with a deep faith commitment, is actually complementary to many religions and theologies.
“It’s not just Christianity, it’s Hinduism, it’s Buddhism, it’s Judaism, it’s Islam, all those big religions, in their books,” Moore said. “They talk about this. If there is an afterlife, you don’t get to enjoy it unless you got a permission slip from the poor. You have to show that you did something, while you were here, for those less fortunate than you. That is really the underpinnings of what is called Socialism.”
Buttigieg may be the candidate that wears his religious beliefs most openly, but far from being the campaign of Godless socialists, both Sanders and some of his most visible supporters have been showing spiritual depth in New Hampshire.
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Manchester Divided coverage of political activity around New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Follow our coverage @BINJreports on Twitter and at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided, and if you want to see more citizens agenda-driven reporting you can contribute at givetobinj.org.