Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been getting a lot of advice lately about how to talk about socialism. His campaign advisors, justifiably concerned about the stigma attached to the term in the United States, are urging him to clarify his position on social welfare and economic planning. In late October, historian Eric Foner also weighed in, addressing an open letter to the Vermont senator in The Nation, in which he implored Sanders to convey socialism as a “moral idea,” not “a foreign import.” “Talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values,” Foner advised, citing Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, and Eugene V. Debs as models of effective moral rhetoric.
Sanders seems to have broadly heeded this advice, attempting last week in a speech at Georgetown University to define an American version of democratic socialism. Much like Debs 100 years before, Sanders tied socialism to American ideals of political equality and economic freedom. But he did not mention Debs, Paine, or Garrison by name, situating himself instead in the liberal tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.
There was another important feature of the American socialist tradition that Sanders’s Georgetown speech left out as well: its spirituality. Debs was just one of many American radicals who underscored his moral message by appealing to voters’ religious sensibilities—referring to Jesus, for example, as the “greatest moral force in the world” and a martyr of the working class.
Sanders, of course, must make his case for socialism to a twenty-first century American audience, and he has good reason to be wary of relying on Debs’s industrial-era rhetoric. Americans, for better or worse, are not as class conscious as they were in the early twentieth century when Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket. They are, however, still very religious, and they tend to express their morality in religious terms. If Bernie Sanders is going to win the hearts and minds of the American public, then, he must grapple with religion much more effectively than even Debs dared to do. At present, Sanders has the attention of religious leftists and liberals of all faiths, who understand and appreciate his social agenda. Many Christians, however, continue to dismiss socialism as a dirty word akin to godlessness. Sanders needs to win them over. He should hammer at the conscious of Christian America, emphasize the social gospel, and convince those who vote with the Republican “religious right” that their purported values of love, goodwill, and fellowship align with social justice, not capitalist enterprise.
Sanders is, of course, Jewish, but this should not preclude him from addressing Christians on issues of morality and justice, especially given his intent to assume the presidency of the United States. To his credit, he has cited Christian sources already during the campaign. In a September speech given at Virginia’s Liberty University, the largest evangelical Christian university in the world, he vindicated socialist principles as an extension of Jesus’ “golden rule.” Sanders reminded his Christian conservative audience of the simple directive given in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.” “It is not very complicated,” he said.
Yet many American Christians have fallen short of the golden rule on issues of social welfare and economic equality, a point that Sanders made multiple times during the speech. “When we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice,” he said, “we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.” Sanders provided plenty of statistical evidence, comparing the wealth accumulated by the richest 0.1 percent to the millions of uninsured, financially strapped, hungry and homeless Americans who struggle to make ends meet every day. The numbers, he concluded, add up to a woeful sum of national depravity, even sin. “Put this in the context of the Bible,” the senator challenged. “And in your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that.”
Of course, conservative Christians opposing federal assistance and welfare programs have used Scripture to support their claims of divinely sanctioned social inequalities. They quote from Proverbs 13:4, which states that “The soul of the lazy man desires and has nothing; but the soul of the diligent shall be made rich.” They refer to Paul’s reprimand in a letter to the Thessalonians: “Whoever refuses to work is not allowed to eat.” They also receive encouragement from televangelists such as Oral Roberts, Benny Hinn, and Joel Osteen, who have preached a so-called “prosperity gospel” that justifies material wealth accumulation as a reward for good faith. As Hinn assured his listeners in a 1990 program, “Poverty is from the devil and . . . God wants all Christians prosperous.” Texas pastor John Hagee went one step further, declaring that “Poverty is caused by sin and disobeying the Word of God.”
Sanders, however, can easily refute these selective interpretations of the Bible by stressing the essence of the gospels and the ministry of Jesus, just as he did at Liberty University. There’s the golden rule. There is also an overabundance of evidence to indicate that Jesus wanted his followers to renounce personal wealth for the sake of the less fortunate. Matthew 25:31-46, for example, recounts Jesus’s parable of the final judgment, in which the righteous who gave freely to “the least of these” enter heaven and the misers are shunned. If Sanders can convince religious Americans to account for the social gospel, he may begin to change the political landscape, engaging more Christians in the fight for social causes. Cultural issues will continue to be divisive, a reality Sanders acknowledged in Virginia. “I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues that you feel very strongly about,” Sanders conceded. “We disagree on those issues. . . . but let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and, in fact, to the entire world that maybe, just maybe we do not disagree on. And maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve them.”
Apparently one evangelical alumnus from Liberty, quoted by several online sources, felt the stir of Sanders’ convictions: “As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair – this Jew – and he proclaimed justice over us, he called us to account, for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful, and for abandoning the poor, the least of these, who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to.” Daniel Rezai, another Liberty graduate, agreed. “Even though he is not a Christian he used a lot of biblical references today that I knew about,” Rezai said. “Jesus Christ talked about inequalities that existed. It seems that no other politician really cares, but Sanders does.”
Such positive responses from evangelicals bode well for a man who readily disclaims any expertise on theology or the Bible. When asked about his spiritual worldview, Sanders said simply that he is “motivated by a vision, which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism, and other religions.” Aimed at a future of peace and goodwill, universal brotherhood, and liberty and justice for all, Sanders’s vision bears likeness to the spiritual worldviews of other notable democratic socialists in U.S. history, including Eugene V. Debs and Henry A. Wallace.
Wallace, who served as Secretary of Agriculture during the Great Depression and Vice President during World War II, ran for President of the United States in 1948 on a spiritually infused platform of progressive politics that pitted him against Democratic incumbent Harry Truman. Though Communists, who rejected religious rhetoric, were the key organizers of his Progressive Party campaign, Wallace held firm to his religious vision of democratic socialism. Calling on the United States to manifest its Christian spirit in both international relations and domestic affairs, Wallace insisted that “we must prove that we ourselves can give an example, in our American democratic way, of full employment and full production for the benefit of the common man.” Christians, he contended, should not fear altruism, but embrace it as an expression of God’s will to love. “It is not that we shall be taking the bread out of the mouths of our own children to feed the children of others, but that we shall cooperate with everyone to call forth the energies of everyone, to put God’s earth more completely at the service of all mankind,” he said in his 1943 speech “Practical Religion and the World of Tomorrow.”
Ultimately, Wallace was unable to convince a majority of Americans that his economic agenda represented their interests, or that his projection of spiritual power could deter the Soviets on matters of geopolitical importance. However, Wallace did inspire a number of radicals who became active in the New Left movement in the 1960s and 1970s, a movement that also included a young Bernie Sanders. New Leftist Staughton Lynd, for one, remembers attending the 1948 Progressive Party convention that nominated Wallace for president. At the time, Lynd already considered himself a socialist. Today, he also identifies as a Quaker and a follower of Jesus’s social gospel, citing Matthew 25 as a “standard of ethics” that he “affirm[s] with all his heart and mind.” Paul Buhle, who founded the New Left journal Radical America in 1967, has similarly made the connection between democratic socialism and Christianity. His graphic history Radical Jesus, which examines the Christian social message, was published in 2013. The social gospel is also central to the message of Pope Francis, who lauded American socialists such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. during his speech to the U.S. Congress in September.
Sanders, then, is in good company when it comes to applying religious principles to radicalism. He has his followers. Now, he must tackle the much harder task of appealing to conservatives who do not recognize the moral foundations of socialism. The Senator is well aware of the difficulties, as he noted in his Liberty University address. “It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you,” he said. “It is harder but not less important for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue. And it is important to see where if possible, and I do believe it is possible, where we can find common ground.”
Basic moral principles are a good place to start, and Sanders took that first, courageous step by pitching his political views to a tough audience of Christian conservatives at Liberty. He should continue this approach, extrapolating his message about the spiritual substance of socialism to the nation at large. He will not convince everyone, but he might nudge American religious culture in a new direction and spark a much-needed revival of Christian social conscience in America. Will it take a Jewish political prophet to remind Christians of Jesus’ social gospel? It’s a tall order, but it may just.
Vaneesa Cook is the Bader Fellow in U.S. History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.