Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish president. His religion isn't why he's struggling.

Even though anti-Semitism is spiking, the long-term trends show wide acceptance of Jews in the United States — and in the White House.
Image: Bernie Sanders addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Detroit
Bernie Sanders addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Detroit on March 6.Jeff Kowalsky / AFP - Getty Images
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By Ariela Keysar, senior fellow at the Public Policy and Law Program at Trinity College

Is America ready to elect a Jewish president? No and yes. No, probably not this year. Bernie Sanders has fallen behind Joe Biden in the delegate count, and Mike Bloomberg crashed out of the race after the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3. In principle, though? A resounding yes! Religious affiliation is not what’s keeping Sanders, Bloomberg and other Jewish hopefuls out of the White House.

Sanders might have done better with some segments of the electorate if he embraced his Judaism more.

As a demographer, I conduct surveys and research studies of religious identity and secularism. What I’ve found over the last three decades is a rise in Nones — those who respond “none” when asked what their religious identity is. My research shows that 42 percent of Nones are politically independent. For Nones, it may well be that religious identification is simply not a salient consideration in choosing among candidates. And as for the many Americans who are religious — still a majority — there seems to be growing acceptance of those of other faiths.

A survey released by Gallup last year found that 93 percent of respondents said they would vote for a “generally well-qualified” nominee of their party if that person happened to be Jewish. That was up from 91 percent in 2015 — and up from 46 percent in a Gallup survey in 1937. The 2019 result for Jews wasn’t far below the 95 percent who indicated they would vote for a Roman Catholic. And remarkably, it was above the 80 percent who said they would vote for an evangelical Christian.

The same Gallup survey suggests more plausible reasons for why Sanders’ candidacy has faltered. Only 47 percent said they would vote for a socialist, for instance, and Sanders is a democratic socialist.

In fact, Sanders might have done better with some segments of the electorate if he embraced his Judaism more. Only 60 percent of respondents in the Gallup survey said they would vote for an atheist. While Sanders doesn’t call himself an atheist, he’s what’s considered a Jewish ‘None’: He describes his identity as Jewish but doesn’t practice the religion, speaking of God as connectedness. He told late-night host Jimmy Kimmel: "What I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”

The irrationality of opposition to Jewish candidates on grounds of ideology or tribalism is on display more than ever this year because there is no ideology or tribal identity that’s shared by the Jewish candidates. That was crystal clear (to use a Bernie-ism) when the multibillionaire Bloomberg faced off against the abstemious Sanders, who says billionaires shouldn’t exist. The sight of two Jewish candidates brawling over tax-and-spend policies should have vaporized any lingering notion that a “Jewish bloc” exists in politics.

Of course, one can never ignore anti-Semitism, which is growing in the dark corners of the internet — and even out in the open, as in the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” The Anti-Defamation League reports anti-Semitic incidents, such as the drawing of swastikas, nearly daily.

Even so, there is little evidence of Jew hatred in the mainstream of the American electorate, which is what matters for elections. Gallup’s survey last year, for example, found that the willingness to vote for a Jewish president cut across party lines, at 94 percent of Republicans and Democrats and 91 percent of independents.

In fact, Sanders’ popularity with young voters in particular might stem in part from his religious identity, or lack thereof. The highest rate of religious nonaffiliation is among millennials — which is also the sweet spot of support for the Sanders campaign.

My research of American religion through the American Religious Identification Survey shows that Nones distance themselves from both the religious and political establishments. According to the Pew Research Center, as of early January, Nones were also the most likely to prefer Bernie Sanders.

American Nones subscribe to secular values, such as tolerance and openness to others. Their firm acceptance of human evolution (almost double the acceptance of Americans in general) and belief in the urgency of addressing climate change further attract them to Bernie.

Sanders also benefits from the breakdown of traditional boundaries most noticeable among millennials. One of the consequences of shattering societal barriers is mixed-religion relationships and marriages. Today, according to Pew, almost 40 percent of Americans who married since 2010 have a spouse of a different religious group, in contrast with only 19 percent of those married before 1960.

Millennials are not as likely to vote in general elections as boomers, but they are often harbingers of societal trends. My study tracking a cohort of Jewish millennials who were raised in Conservative synagogues found that a plurality of them not only dated but also married non-Jews.

How do their non-Jewish family members relate to them? Respondents describe supportive and accepting relationships. Intermarried Jewish millennials told us their parents-in-law send Hanukkah gifts instead of Christmas gifts, while their partners gladly agree to having a mezuzah — a small box containing a prayer scroll — on the front doorpost, as is traditional for Jewish households. This accommodation was unthinkable a few decades ago.

It appears that 2020 is not to be the year a Jew is elected president. But judging from the tolerance of the voting public, it may not be long before the door of the White House has a mezuzah, too.