Bernie Sanders and the Christian Vote

Since announcing his bid for the democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders has amassed a small army of supporters, numbering over a million and contributing an average of about $30 to his campaign. The only major candidate on either side of the aisle who has refused the financial support of billionaires and corporate super-PACs (with the exception of Donald Trump who will use his own $10 billion fortune to finance his campaign), the 74 year-old senator from Vermont hopes to start a grass-roots revolution to focus on the ever-widening wealth gap that he feels is the greatest existing threat to the working poor, the middle-class, and, more broadly, American democracy. Pope Francis, during his recent visit to the United States, resonated with Sanders in his repeated exhortations both at Congress and the UN to pursue legislation and policies that respect human dignity, promote gainful employment, uplift the poor and disadvantaged, and reject the extravagant excesses of “casino-type” capitalism.

To the chorus of voters who accuse Sanders of waging class warfare, he would likely point out that a war is already underway… and the average American has been taking a serious drubbing at the hands of billionaires and the elite. In the last 10 years, Sanders tells us that “90% of the new wealth generated in this country is going to the top 1% most wealthy individuals.” In 2008 the systematic de-regulation of financial markets combined with the insatiable avarice of Wall Street threatened to destabilize the entire global economy, and it was the American taxpayer who ultimately paid to bail the banks out. Meanwhile over 20 million Americans live below the poverty line, unemployment is rampant especially among young minorities, and homelessness and hunger have become a staple of most urban centers with Los Angeles recently announcing a homelessness crisis.

These statistics and trends are troubling. Indeed, many of the candidates from both parties have paid lip-service to the shrinking middle class and income inequality. But why should the Christian voter take special notice of Sanders? After all, Bernie is a liberal and by his own admission, a democratic socialist. He leans heavily to the left on most social issues including LGBT rights and abortion. Bernie himself is Jewish. He doesn’t carry around a show-Bible like Trump, nor is he the son of a Baptist preacher like Ted Cruz.

Nevertheless, as evidenced by a recent appearance at Liberty University, Christians undoubtedly are taking notice of Sanders. His speech which involved quotes from the Bible and at times sounded much like a sermon challenged the students to stand with the poor and the wretched, and to question the justice and morality of a system in which “so few have so much and so many have so little.” Jim Wallis, a renowned Christian author and activist, recently stated on an NPR interview that what a candidate says about his or her personal faith is less important to him as a voter than the policies the candidate promotes and how these policies affect the average American. Could it be that a non-Christian who advocates for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and those whose lives are ruined by warfare might be the more Christian choice than a Baptist or Presbyterian who continues policies that threaten the environment, marginalize the working poor, and propose a violent solution to every new foreign conflict?

When Christ was pressed by his followers regarding what one must do to inherit eternal life, he answered with the Shema and the Golden Rule, to love one’s neighbor as himself. In case there was any misunderstanding, Christ immediately told the story of the good Samaritan, purposefully choosing a foreigner, a stranger, an individual with a different religion and unfamiliar language, to communicate and in a sense redefine for his listeners the concept of “neighbor”. And when in Matthew 25, he described the final judgement and the coming kingdom, he said this:

Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Matthew 25:34–36

For a moment, allowing ourselves to put aside partisan rhetoric and the misleading labels of “liberal” and “socialist”, let us look at Bernie’s record and his position on policy to determine his Christian credentials. His personal statements about faith are perhaps less relevant to the voter than his track-record of legislation and policy. For just as words without action are empty, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:17).” So to what extent has the work of his political career been a response to Christ’s own commands of feeding the hungry, embracing strangers, helping the poor, and treating prisoners with dignity?

On the middle class and the working poor, no candidate has been as consistent or as vocal as Sanders in decrying their plight and working to expand opportunities that uplift the disadvantaged. Sanders favors an increase in minimum wage to allow those working full-time to support a modest living. These are not “hand-outs” or entitlements which conservatives are quick to reject. Rather, echoing the calls of social activists like Dorothy Day and Caesar Chavez, support of the living wage is a moral commitment we make as a society that if a man or woman is willing to work full-time, he or she should not live in dire poverty, go to sleep hungry, or constantly worry about keeping the heat and the lights on.

Rather than wealth redistribution this would be a move to halt a troubling trend already in place. The federal minimum wage in America had its highest purchasing power in 1968 (worth $10.88 per hour in 2014 dollars), and since 1984 has steadily dropped in terms of purchasing power. Most of the GOP candidates tell us that raising the minimum wage is bad for business, but similar arguments were vociferously advanced when moral-minded politicians in the early 1900s sought to introduce child labor laws. Meanwhile the ratio of CEO to worker income skyrockets, corporate profits beggar belief, and the number of billionaires in America has reached an all-time high. According to a recent CNN poll, a striking 71% of Americans support a hike in the federal minimum wage and Sanders stands with this majority.

Sanders also supports the notion, on moral grounds, that healthcare is a right of all individuals, not merely the privilege of an elite few. He challenges America to follow the lead of many other industrialized, first-world countries that have successfully implemented universal healthcare programs. As a physician, I have the daily privilege of working with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals: the sick. As a Christian it is very difficult to seriously entertain a policy that denies healthcare to the poor, and somehow suggest this is consistent with the Christian duty of charity toward my fellow men and women. Christ sought out the lepers and the epileptics, the outcasts and the dispossessed; what was expedient hardly figured into his motivations and neither should it figure into ours.

On education Sanders argues that higher education is not a commodity but an investment that a society makes in its own people. Like many others, Sanders is scandalized by the rise in costs in public university tuitions across the country. All over the country, working-class Americans are forced to forego higher education when faced with a crippling mountain of debt that will follow them for decades. Sanders recently authored and introduced a bill to Congress that provides for the funding of public university education by imposing a relatively modest tax on speculative Wall Street transactions. Today more than ever, a solid education for a young man or woman may be the single most important determinant for the course of the rest of his life, and this is why it is a ethical issue as much as it is a practical issue.

On the environment, Sanders challenges all Americans, just as the pope recently challenged the Catholic faithful and the world in his latest encyclical, to consider the moral dimensions of polluting the air and war and destroying forests and coasts. As Christians we are called to acknowledge that the earth is a gift from God, and we are its stewards. Many on the left would argue the science on climate change is settled and since a majority of scientists support the notion that human activity is the main factor in the warming of the atmosphere, that policy should be introduced to limit carbon emissions. Meanwhile, those on the right say there is no such thing as a “settled science” and until we know for certain the cause of global warming, there is no compelling reason to change the status quo. Christians must take the lead in protecting the earth and the environment. Dumping waste into the rivers and the air, destroying forests, ruining pristine lands and waters while drilling for oil — how can such behavior be consistent with the Christian tradition of temperance and reverence for the beauty of God’s creation?

On racism and bigotry, Sanders is undoubtedly the candidate of minorities, women, undocumented workers, and the LGBT community. A social-justice trend-setter, Bernie has had a consistent record of supporting human rights, even when doing so was not particularly popular. As a young man, Bernie was arrested for his participation in civil rights demonstrations. Taking on the contemporary disparities in the criminal justice system, Bernie recently proposed a bill to Congress calling to abolish private prisons which profit handsomely by incarcerating mostly black and brown Americans, often for non-violent crimes. He favors equal pay and universal, paid medical and maternity leave for women. He has a long and unwavering record of supporting equal rights for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. His immigration reform policy is the most Christ-like as he calls for a fair and humane pathway to bring 11 million undocumented workers out of the shadows where they have been exploited, persecuted, and abused by unscrupulous employers. Most of his economic policies, focused on the working poor and middle class, will disproportionately benefit minorities. After Bernie was interrupted by representatives of Black Lives Matter in Seattle, many critics even while acknowledging the legitimacy and importance of that group’s grievances, lamented that they seemed to be targeting the wrong politician.

And now for the elephant in the room: abortion. Many Christian’s feel that Sanders stance on a woman’s right to choose automatically disqualifies him in his bid for the presidency. Abortion is one of the most polarizing issues in that opposing sides of the conflict cannot even seem to agree about what it is they are arguing about. For pro-life proponents, abortion is the planned and systematic killing of human beings in the womb. For pro-choice proponents, abortion is a medical procedure that disposes of “products of conception” at the discretion of the pregnant woman who should be free of governmental intrusion into her healthcare choices. Each side brings scientists into their arena to buttress their claims; each side feels it has claim to the moral high-ground. Neither side seems willing to compromise.

However, despite the apparent impasse, there are places that a compromise can indeed be struck as artfully pointed out by Tony Campolo, a leading evangelical thinker and author of “Red Letter Christian”, who describes himself as being pro-life “in a full sense”:

“… the people in Congress who vote for the curtailment of abortion, on the one hand, turn around and vote against raising the minimum wage, vote against universal healthcare, vote against daycare for single women, vote against prenatal and postnatal care. There is an inconsistency here. If we’re gonna make abortion illegal, we have to deal with the forces that are driving women to have abortions.”

In survey after survey, the majority of women who undergo abortions cite financial reasons as being a significant factor in their decision. In fact, during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the number of abortions actually increased slightly despite his staunch pro-life stance as compared the years that Bill Clinton was president. Decreasing the number of abortions performed each year in the United States should be an initiative that both sides of the debate can agree on, but this can only be achieved by addressing the underlying economic forces and disparities that drive many women to make this difficult and painful decision. As Martin Luther King once admonished his fellow Christians, we must never “rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”

In the Bible, it is written that a man cannot serve two gods. His service of one will invariably cause him to neglect and even hate the other. It is a statement as much about the nature of gods as it is about the nature of man. Gods consume us — the god of power, the god of pride and American exceptionalism, the god of materialism; they are jealous and seek to enslave us. Christ especially warned us about the god of money. He knew this was a powerful god. It is harder, he says, for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle … in other words, impossible. But even such warnings have failed to subvert the proliferation and growing popularity of “prosperity gospel” preachers who teach that wealth is a sign of God’s blessings and poverty an indication of His displeasure. American Christianity has managed to make an unholy alliance with “casino capitalism” and in doing so has replaced true devotion with idolatry.

It is easy for Christians to lament the decline of culture. We point our fingers at gays and lesbians, and blame them for the destruction of marriage and the family. We point our fingers at criminals and blame them for the bane of addiction, and the violence within society. We point our fingers at immigrants and accuse them of thievery and parasitism. We point our fingers at the poor, and blame them for sloth and opportunism. And recently, it has become all too common to point fingers at Muslims and blame them for global unrest. It is the low road in a sense. It is easy. For all my faults, at least I am not as bad as they are, we tell ourselves. But what if occasionally we reflected on the “beam in [own] own eye” and pointed the finger at ourselves? Just like it took an uneducated carpenter to speak truth to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, perhaps we need this agnostic Jew from Brooklyn to remind Christians of today that we have lost our way. If we don’t like the demands he makes on us, if his talk about the poor makes us uncomfortable, we can either turn away, or perceive in his words a call to take the high road, the hard road. If our Christianity is to be about anything, it must be about love and mercy, forgiveness and redemption… in a word, it must be about the cross.