On September 14, Bernie Sanders gave a speech at Liberty University, the largest Evangelical Christian institution of higher education in the world.
I tried to come up with a metaphor that would adequately express the abnormality of Sanders's visit. Saying that Bernie Sanders -- unfalteringly pro gay marriage, pro women's right to choose, and an outspoken socialist -- was going "behind enemy lines" or "into the belly of beast" seemed insufficient in expressing the unusualness of his visit. From the moment his near half-hour address began, Sanders acknowledged the strangeness of his being at Liberty, conceding, "...the views that many here at Liberty University have and I, on a number of important issues, are very, very different."
The issues he's referring to are the "social" or "family" issues I previously mentioned, which have been the swing vote, get-to-the-ballot-box issues for many Christians in the last couple of elections: mainly abortion and gay marriage.
I've followed Sanders closely since his entrance into the Democratic candidate race -- if you can even call it a race. With Hilary Clinton's name recognition and the simultaneous circus of sweaty arguing that is the Republican contest, the "race" between Clinton and Sanders as they've campaigned in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire has seemed more like a leisurely afternoon of semi-competitive Frisbee golf than a 5K for a prize.
Sanders's rhetorical strategy in his Liberty University speech was strategic if not brave. Instead of trying to persuade a mostly steadfast crowd of right-leaning Conservatives as to why they should adopt Sanders's positions on social and family issues, he illustrated his position on greed and money in America and demonstrated those views as being in harmony with and expressing Christian theology.
Invoking Matthew 7:12 -- the golden rule -- as well as Amos 5:24 and justice rolling "on like a river," Sanders argued "...it would be hard to make the case that we are a just society, or anything resembling a just society today."
Sanders evidenced his mini-Jeremiad on inequality in America by referencing the problems of income and wealth inequality. He explained that there are people with tens of billions of dollars and "huge yachts and jet planes," while at the same time "there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, who are struggling to feed their families."
For Bernie Sanders, financial inequality is injustice. His declaration at Liberty about America's current economic situation was that "there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little."
Putting aside the obvious paradox that the Evangelical Conservative crowd at Liberty University also views our society is incredibly unjust, but for opposite reasons as Sanders does, I found Sanders's gumption -- a Democrat at Liberty! -- and attempt to bridge the gap between polar cultures admirable.
However, I walked away from watching Bernie Sanders's speech not as much inspired by his campaign or encouraged by his stepping-across-the aisle as I was plagued with a question: Can I vote for a president who isn't a Christian?
The Presidential race in 2016 presents a new, different challenge in making the decision of who to vote for: Bernie Sanders is not a Christian. He's culturally Jewish, but has acknowledged that religion doesn't play a huge role in his life, and he is probably best described as secular.
I grew up in a conservative Christian home. And from kindergarten through 8th grade, I attended a conservative Christian school. One of the earliest political memories I have is the 2000 Presidential election, during which our entire school held a mock election with George W. Bush and Al Gore on the ballot. Out of the approximately 200 students in our school, only 1 voted for Al Gore, and he was sent to the principal's office for a "discussion."
I share this story to illustrate what I think is true for many Christians when they approach the ballot box: The dominant narrative and most important question is, "Who's the Christian candidate?" which usually means, "Who's the Republican candidate?"
A candidate like Bernie Sanders -- who persuasively uses Scripture to deconstruct the ills of capitalism and income inequality in the United States -- messes up the all-too-persistent narrative that Republican = Christian candidate. I find it refreshing, and a dialogue worth having.
However, while Bernie Sanders seems like the candidate I would be most likely to support, I'm still hesitant because he isn't a Christian and doesn't even claim to be.
As I've wrestled with this question of whether not it's permissible for me as a Christian to vote for someone who isn't also a Christian, I've gone back to thinking about a precursory question:
What should the president do?
Perhaps, just maybe, being a Christian isn't the most important qualification when it comes to selecting a president. What's true in politics is true in life: One person's "Christian" looks a whole lot different than another's version of how the Gospel is fleshed out in life. Likewise, non-Christians have done a whole lot of good in this world, and positions of leadership, especially in a government that oversees a pluralistic religious culture, shouldn't be reserved "For Christians Only."
The president's job isn't to be the pastor of our country -- that's our pastors' calling. The president's vocation is to lead and protect and govern the nation -- all of its citizens, not just one religious denomination. If America was founded as a nation where freedom of religion is to be one of the most-cherished liberties, and if the First Amendment to the Constitution's Establishment Clause (which states no religion is to be preferred over another religion or non-religion) is to be taken seriously as a vision for the kind of place in respect to religious liberty that America is supposed to be, perhaps religious affiliation shouldn't be such a non-negotiable for Christians picking a candidate.
Good politics won't save us, but this world and how we live in it matters. We are called, as Christians and humans, to be stewards of what we've been given: to cultivate and redeem this earth and its people. Ultimately, that's going to be expressed from Christ through us with love.
That end goal -- love -- should be the defining characteristic of any candidate we choose. Not a perfectly stated religious doctrine that agrees with ours, but a leader with a history and vision of love and stewardship that's going to help the least of these, like Jesus commanded.