Bernie Sanders Goes to Church

How the Vermont socialist is making his pitch to black voters in South Carolina.

Bernie Sanders: South Carolina

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at the state house, Jan. 18, 2016, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

COLUMBIA, South Carolina—Sen. Bernie Sanders often speaks about reducing economic inequality and expanding access to health care and public education. It is hard to get him to talk about much else, really. But not often is Sanders asked to join in worship for these platform planks, as he was at a Tuesday prayer breakfast with black church leaders in Columbia.

“Let us pray for economic and criminal justice reform in this state,” the invocation began in the gymnasium of Allen University, a small, historically black college a short walk from the much larger University of South Carolina. (Sanders would visit both schools before lunchtime on Tuesday.) And so there was such a prayer, and a relatively wonky one at that, including references to how black Americans are “disproportionately locked behind bars.” After that prayer followed the one about increasing government support for public education and those in need to quality health care.

The prayers were wedged between pre-event performances from a local gospel choir (including a duet of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) and from singer Shirley Murdock, as the mostly black attendees noshed on eggs and bacon. 

All of which is to say: Bernie Sanders is not in New Hampshire anymore.

The coalition of young people and assorted other white liberals who won him 60 percent of the vote in the Granite State do not comprise a majority of Democrats in South Carolina or in many of the Southern states that follow on Super Tuesday. Roughly half of South Carolina Democratic voters are black, and building a successful organization means going through church leaders. As South Carolina state Rep. Joe Neal, a pastor himself, said in introducing Sanders, the church has “long been the backbone of politics in the African-American community.”

Which brings us to the somewhat jarring (and, OK, amusing) image of an elderly Vermont socialist following a rousing gospel performance by bowing his head in prayer. And really bowing, too—his head was practically in line with his knees. Sanders takes nothing lightly.

Look. Sanders does not speak much in terms of the holy because, although born and raised Jewish, he is not active in organized religion. He does not operate in many gears, and it would come across as clunky—and inauthentic—if he started prattling on about his most cherished Old Testament verses. But if winning over large numbers of black voters is the key to winning the Democratic nomination, then developing a spiritual fluency is something that wouldn’t hurt him.

Spiritual is a good way of describing how Sanders has begun speaking to voters of faith. “My spirituality is that we are all in this together,” Sanders said in a New Hampshire town hall earlier this month, “and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That is my very strong spiritual belief.” Neal quoted this “simple yet elegant statement” as a line that “resounded” with him, and the applause from his fellow breakfasting supplicants suggested that it did with them, too.

The line sounds like something that, first, is a true belief of his, whether or not there’s any organized monotheistic backing to it or not. This brand of social justice spirituality also allows him to express his beliefs without straying too far from his campaign platform. Sanders gets uncomfortable if he strays even an inch from his message of economic inequality, so he simply doesn’t stray from it. And this version of spirituality, embodied in human solidarity, allows him to stay on topic.

Sanders is still most confident—if his decibel level is properly gauged—when he’s raging against the billionaires who he says have taken and continue to take all of the money and explaining how he will take it back. That was all politely applauded at the prayer breakfast, too, but nowhere near as deafeningly as it has been at some of the younger, whiter events I saw Sanders host in New Hampshire. Conflict is not the best frame for winning over churchgoers.

Sanders stuck largely to a more sermonlike tone. Gone was his apocalyptic opening about a country in late-stage crisis for which “establishment politics and establishment economics” are no longer the applicable medicine. In its place he began speaking about “our mission as human beings, the mission here of our life.” There are some people out there, he notes, who say the purpose of life is “to accumulate as much money as they possibly can.” These people, of course, are the billionaires. We are not like them.

He spoke extensively about reforming the criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration, positions that now earn central booking in his pitch but still blend with everything else. After noting the millions of people whose lives are “forever altered” when marijuana possession earns them a criminal record, Sanders offered a useful contrast: the executives of large banks who caused the financial crisis, who earned bonuses for their work instead of criminal records. Gotta change that.

There’s another part of Sanders’ regular presentation during which he urges people to think big to change perceptions of the possible. Usually as his illustrative examples, he talks about the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. On Tuesday he took it in a slightly different direction. “If people never dreamed, where would we be together? What would we have accomplished?” he asked. “If we didn’t dream, does anybody here think that we’d have an African-American as president of the United States today?”

And climate change, Sanders’ other dear issue next to economic inequality, is usually a subject for which he lists all of the expected ill consequences and then rails against the oil and gas industry and their political cronies. (Indeed, he would return to this formulation during his next stop when addressing University of South Carolina students.) On Tuesday, though, he spoke about the issue, in part, as a matter of faith. “As religious people,” he said, “we have got to understand that we do not have the right to destroy God’s earth.”

Was that just a we and religious people in the same sentence of a Bernie Sanders stump speech, in reference to climate change? Does it even work? In 11 days, God will reveal all.