Wednesday night, CNN hosted a town hall for Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. At this point, I’ve watched both Sanders and Clinton speak so many times — both on TV and in person — that I pretty much have their stump speeches memorized. Here’s a radical idea: We’re going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just for the millionaires and billionaires.
That said, there were a couple of moments last Wednesday that I found truly compelling, and both were related to faith. To no end, the Republican candidates boast about their religious beliefs, but on the Democratic side, we’ve only seen glimpses into how faith affects the candidates’ motivations and values.
That changed Wednesday. In one form or another, both Sanders and Clinton were asked about their religion and spirituality. And based on what I heard, their answers should end the conversation that religious observance and belief in God are necessary to be a leader of this country. In fact, as a Jew who wrestles with the existence of a higher power, I find their views on religion inspiring and necessary.
Anderson Cooper, the moderator of the town hall, asked, “What do you say to a voter out there who sees faith as a guiding principle in their lives and wants it to be a guiding principle for this country?”
Sanders went first.
“It’s a guiding principle in my life,” he responded. “Absolutely it is. You know, everybody practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings. I believe that as a human being, the pain that one person feels … if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me.
“And I worry very much about a society where some people spiritually say, ‘That doesn’t matter to me, I got it. I don’t care about other people.’ So my spirituality is that we are all in this together.”
If you didn’t catch it, there was no mention of God or Jesus or scripture. And this isn’t to say there is anything wrong with discussing those things (Clinton did), but whether you agree with Sanders’ views or not, is there anything we should want more than a president who strongly values the community and its power? Isn’t that what America should be about?
I found that Clinton’s religious views resonated with me, too. Toward the end of answering a question from a rabbi about how she finds the ego to run for president and have humility, she spoke of gratitude.
“Everybody knows I have lived a very public life for the last 25 or so years, and so, I’ve had to be in public dealing with some very difficult issues — personal issues, political, public issues,” she said. “And I read a treatment of the prodigal son parable by the Jesuit Henri Nouwen, who I think is a magnificent writer of spiritual and theological concerns. And I read that parable, and there was a line in it that became just a lifeline for me. And it basically is practice the discipline of gratitude.
“So regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you. Listen to your critics. Answer the questions. But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude and that has helped me enormously.”
This answer is incredibly important because, again, it did not invoke God. Yes, Clinton has been open about her belief in God in the past, but it’s telling that when she was talking about what her “lifeline” is, she chose to talk about the very human act of practicing gratitude — not prayer or other religious acts. I find that commendable.
I thought maybe I was preaching to the choir on this issue (pun intended). But according a recent Pew survey, 51 percent of Americans would be less likely to support a candidate who is an atheist. For context, that is a greater percentage than people less likely to support a candidate who has used marijuana, or is Muslim, or is gay or lesbian, or has had an extramarital affair. This may be an obvious thing to say, but as far as we’ve come in regard to LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, civil rights, there is still a large amount of religious (or nonreligious) intolerance in this country. To be fair, that 51 percent number is 12-percent less than it was in 2007. But I still don’t get why a definite belief in God should be mandatory to receive someone’s vote.
Gratitude, humility and commitment to community: These are the values that should be of importance when picking our next president, at least in my opinion.
It shouldn’t matter whether Sanders or Clinton believe in God or not, because it shouldn’t matter how they’ve arrived at those values.
What matters is they have them.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.