I'm inclined to think we should judge each candidate in proportion to how much he or she relies on religion. If someone forefronts sanctimony, we should examine whether it's a lie. But if a candidate takes a minimal position — claiming a faith but grounding himself in morality that can exist apart from religion (which is what Trump does) — there's nothing to delve into. If it's a lie, it's an insignificant social lie, like saying you love your wife when your feelings have in fact gone cold.So I was very interested in what Bernie Sanders said in last night's Democratic Party debate — video, transcript — when Anderson Cooper gave him a prompt to talk about his religious belief:
There are no visible atheists or even agnostics at the presidential level of American politics. Do you want to start outing them? Maybe Bernie Sanders. He might be an atheist. What do you think? Want to try to smoke him out? He said:
“I am not actively involved with organized religion... I think everyone believes in God in their own ways... To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”To my ear, that sounds like an effort to say: Even atheists believe in God... in our own way. A mystical attitude toward all of humanity counts as belief in God.
COOPER: Senator Sanders, let me just follow up. Just this weekend there was an article I read in the Detroit News saying that you keep your Judaism in the background, and that’s disappointing some Jewish leaders. Is that intentional?Sanders spoke with feeling and political, sociological substance about his Jewishness, and I am sure most Americans would come away convinced that he gave a strong answer to the question asked, and that is fine. But the question was Judaism, the religious belief, and nothing in the answer reflected any belief in religion.
SANDERS: No. I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp. I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.
Read "'Judaism' or 'Jewishness'?" by Shalom Goldman, a religion professor at Duke University. He's interested in the way some people — notably Madonna — have embraced Judaism without Jewishness:
Thus a type of “Judaism”—in the sense of ritual practice—has found a home among those who are not Jewish. And we can now speak of “Judaism without Jewishness”: a situation in which the content is from the Jewish tradition, but the actors are not.And he notes the corresponding phenomenon, "Jewishness without Judaism." Goldman cites an article in the NYC Jewish newspaper Forward referring to Jews who “changed Judaism forever.”
Expecting to read about Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I was startled to see that the article was about Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Sandy Koufax, and Lenny Bruce. And the “Judaism” that the article referred to was the way Jews are perceived by other Americans, and by extension, the way they perceive themselves. As a child of the Sixties, I too am proud of Bob Dylan, et al.—but what does that have to do with Judaism? In today’s cultural and religious marketplaces, religion and ethnic solidarity are often confused...Goldman talks about a collection of correspondence between the writers Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein, who "are constantly referring to their Jewish identity":
But this is an identity devoid of all content.... [T]heir interest is in the way Jews are perceived by others, and more specifically it is about uncovering any hint of antisemitism. Neither of these erudite authors (each of whom has authored over twenty books) expressed any interest in Jewish texts, languages, or rituals. Jewishness for them is ferreting out potential or actual antisemites. This all-too-common type of “Jewishness” has as its hallmark a lack of real content.I think it's unfair to say there's no content when what you mean is there is no religious content. To me, what is striking is not the absence of religious content, because I would simply assume there is an absence of belief and even interest in religion. What is striking is absence of forthright atheism.
How would you recognize an atheist if one appeared in American presidential politics? He probably would speak of his family and ethnic background, showing respect and making a connection to a religious tradition, and he would present himself as a moral person with the same kind of values embraced by Americans who find those values in religion. He's not going to say "Look, I'm an atheist. There is no God. I believe in science. And as President, I will consult science, not this 'God' my opponent keeps talking about."