Rules Are for Schmucks: How Bernie Sanders Can Make It Interesting

I admire Hillary Clinton. She’s one of the only politicians I’ve ever written anything unabashedly positive about, as I did when she helped spread hackers’ access to the unrestricted internet in places where it’s censored. I voted for her enthusiastically in the 2008 primaries, and I would have voted for her in the general election (as I did not do for the guy who defeated her). I almost gave her money. (I realize that “almost” giving money didn’t do her any good, but since I never get even that far with anyone else, it’s high praise indeed).

But she’s trying my patience.

Is it OK for someone like Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum to blast their opponents for irreligion?  To ask questions like “Did they not go and hear the same lessons I did in Sunday school? Did they not sing the same hymns?” as Clinton just did? Criticizing political opponents for an improper understanding of God’s intentions is the worst, most dangerous kind of political discourse. Are those the same Sunday school lessons that led her once to proclaim that “marriage has historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman”?

Worse yet is her demand that “religious beliefs…have to be changed” about abortion. Does she really view religion as a sidecar for politics, with no independent existence other than as an element of political struggle to be manipulated? I’m about as nonreligious as you can get, but I respect the sincerity and integrity of people who truly believe in divinely ordained rules of behavior, even when I object to the substance of their rules. It’s one thing to say, “I disagree with what you say the rules on abortion should be, even though you think those rules come from God” but entirely different to say, “You need to change what you think God said.” The last thing we need is politicians like Hillary Clinton dictating theology or preaching at us that the Bible is “the living word.

Clinton’s only primary opponent to gain any traction so far is Bernie Sanders, who still trails her by a nearly 3-1 margin in national polls (and by the same margin in fundraising). At least so far, Sanders has limited his efforts to distinguish himself from the frontrunner by squeezing to her left on economic issues. I think such a narrow focus is self-defeating. Economic populists from Estes Kefauver to Hubert Humphrey to Fred Harris to Allan Cranston to Paul Simon to John Edwards have tried that route and failed. It’s especially unlikely to work against Clinton, who is supremely skilled at sliding a little this way, then a little that way, to fuzz over economic differences.

What Sanders needs is to try something different, to take advantage of a sea-change in the electorate in a way that Clinton cannot match. For the first time in history, humanism has the possibility of becoming a significant force in American politics. I dislike the press’s favorite word “nones” because it’s so negative—I prefer “humanists,” for people who simply strive to be “good without a god.” Whatever you call us, we’re big, especially among committed Democrats—we’re growing, we’re youth-dominated, and we’re trendy. Perhaps most importantly, from Sanders’s standpoint, we’re utterly leaderless (politically at least). There is not a single national politician willing to touch us with a ten-foot pole.

Dear Sen. Sanders: You can’t fall off the floor. You’ve got to take some chances, and you’ve got to defy the conventional wisdom. You’ve got the patter down about economic privilege—just expand it a little, to talk about religious privilege as well. There is absolutely no way Clinton will match you on that, because the whole mainstream Democratic Party mindset she embodies is to pretend to be all things to all people.

Sen. Sanders, here are a few concrete things you can do:

1. Withdraw your support for RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which you co-sponsored). Everybody makes mistakes, and politicians look appealingly humble when they admit them. Sponsor a bill to repeal it outright—there is no way Clinton will match you on that or be able to gloss over the differences. There’s a tremendous appeal to the simple idea that “the same rules ought to apply to everybody—rich and poor, religious and nonreligious.” Use it.

2. Take a stand against the special immigration privilege for religious workers. There is absolutely no reason why God industry workers ought to be moved to the front of the immigration line, ahead of everyone else. This law will automatically expire September 30 unless Congress takes affirmative action to extend it. One senator can’t pass something by himself, but he can seriously gum up the works for getting something else passed. Block it.

3. Distance yourself from our increasingly unpopular president by shaming him on his faith-based initiative promise. This time eight years ago, Obama was solemnly promising that faith-based initiative grantees would have to obey the same discrimination rules that everyone else does. Once in office, he reneged. Tell it like it is.

4. Give ‘em hell at Liberty University. It was a great idea to agree to speak there, but don’t limit yourself to rich vs. poor rhetoric, which is so easy for evangelicals to finesse by saying “Yes, that’s why we have such a good record on charitable giving.” Use the controversy opportunity as your Sister Souljah moment to tell them they ought to obey the same discrimination, healthcare, and vaccination laws as everyone else—make that the place where you announce your reversal on RFRA. You’ll dominate the news cycle.

5. Challenge Mike Huckabee to a debate on religious privilege. He’d accept such a challenge in a heartbeat to help get him exposure in the overcrowded Republican field. He’s also better-humored than some of the maniacs like Santorum and Cruz. All the “me too” primary debates are a snooze, but Huckabee vs. Sanders could be great television.

To be fair, there’s nothing in Sanders’s record to suggest that he has any backbone on religious privilege issues. But he looks like he’s having fun, and he could make history as the first national political leader of the fast-growing good-without-a-god movement. If he does that, I might almost give him money.