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The unseen side of Bernie Sanders's young voter revolution (+video)

Shifts in thought

The appeal of Bernie Sanders's policy to young liberals is well-known. The appeal of his 'spiritual' outlook is less discussed, but potent.  

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People listen to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speak in New York earlier this year.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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By the measure of the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign appears to be on the wane.

But from the vantage point of Fayna Pearlman’s Brooklyn apartment, it is only the first glimmer of a change that could one day reshape American politics.

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Last year, the Hunter College student helped found what she calls LUC, or “little urban community.” It is a group of diverse but like-minded Millennials who rent out all four floors of a pre-war apartment in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, sharing a common vision to transform American society, both socially and spiritually.

With a sensibility that vibrates in a way that seems neither traditionally religious nor secular, Ms. Pearlman says that “we’re all starting to feel more and more connected to the fact that ‘we’re all in this together,’ ” she says.

She could be quoting the self-described democratic socialist senator, a Brooklyn-born Jew.

Sanders’s appeal to young liberals through his views on inequality, health care, and college tuition are well known. But less examined is his connection to young Americans’ faith.

Sanders’s view is one of a spirituality not grounded in any religious tradition. It is instead tied to a deep sense of human interconnectedness.

This view resonates with a growing number of Millennials – the “nones” who follow no specific religion.

To some, these nones could even be a potential Democratic counterpoint to conservative Evangelicals. In 2012, some 70 percent of nones voted for Barack Obama, just as 79 percent of conservative Evangelicals (who also make up about a quarter of the United States population) voted for Mitt Romney.

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For now, that kind of political clout would appear to be a long way off, says Carter Turner, professor of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia.

Nones “don’t have centralized organizations, they don’t have the networks that come with centralized organizations, they don’t have shared rituals that unify, and they don’t even share a very specific agenda,” he says. 

“I think it’s fair to say they share a moral commitment to fairness, as they understand it,” he adds, “but that’s not enough to make them a reliable religious-political subset with the potential to rival Evangelicals.”   

Still, their rise – seen partly in Sanders’s rise – illustrates some of the ways Millennials could influence politics.

“Wind back the clock 40 years, and you could say the same thing about the evangelical Protestants,” John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, told The Houston Chronicle last month.

He has studied the nones and believes atheists, agnostics, and the religiously unaffiliated could build a potent political force.

Forty years ago, he added, Evangelicals “were beginning to get interested in politics. It may have looked like a daunting prospect to organize. But they became heavily politicized. I can imagine a similar thing developing with the nones.”

Rise of the nones

Since 2007, nones have grown from 16 percent of the US population to 23 percent, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. During that time, the share of nones that believe in God has shrunk from 70 percent to 61 percent.

“Religious ‘nones’ are not only growing as a share of the U.S. population, but they are becoming more secular over time by a variety of measures, a fact that also is helping to make the U.S. public overall somewhat less religious,” Pew found.

On the surface, Pearlman’s political motivations sound diffuse: What attracts her and her friends to Sanders is a hard-to-describe feeling, she says – a need to be less individualistic and more connected as community.

Yet in the currents of that philosophy, there are clear ripples of organization.

“We feel it as we become more careful and conscious of the words we use, as we stand up and march with our black friends for the lack of justice,” says Pearlman via e-mail. “We feel it when we give our hard-earned money to our friends’ GoFundMe pages, and even as we start to work together to fight climate change through conscious diets and purchases.”

On Fridays, for example, LUC members meet to share a Shabbat meal. But it’s less an “ecumenical” meal than a way to build community intentionally.

Though the religious studies major identifies as Jewish, she says that for her and many of her friends without religious affiliations, the views expressed by Sanders “ring deeply for us.”

“Bernie supporters don't really feel like his campaign has anything to do with religion or politics – which is precisely why we love him so deeply,” she says.

'Alls' not walls

If the supporters of Donald Trump have expressed a desire to put up walls, the sensibilities of many Millennial nones have tended toward “alls” – a frustration with the divisiveness of politics and religion.

“Part of the discomfort among the nones seems to be the fact that every label that we have comes with a great deal of religious baggage right now, and a great deal of political baggage,” says David Dault, a former professor of religion who now heads the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, which examines civic and social issues through a lens of faith. “Millennials seem to want to step away from that – they think the labels just get in the way.”  

Perhaps because of this, nones participate less in the political process, Pew found. About 7 in 10 adults who identify with a religion say they are registered to vote, compared with 62 percent of religious nones.

Yet within the increasing population of nones, the numbers of atheists and agnostics are increasing even faster, and they have become more aggressively active in politics, advocates say.

“This is a very activist oriented people that are engaged in donating to politics and participating in politics,” says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association in Washington. “And not just voting, but the works.”

That includes rallying around the candidacy of Jamie Raskin, who’s seeking to become the first openly humanist elected to Congress in history this fall, Mr. Speckhardt says. If elected, he would be only the second declared atheist in Congress, after Rep. Pete Stark (D) of California.

For these “nontheists” – a term Speckhardt often uses – there is a shared sense of “spirituality” with the nones.

“ ‘Spirituality’ is not a term that I use personally, because it can be confusing to people,” he says. “It could make them think that you believe in God in a particular way. But I know lots of humanist-atheist types who say they are spiritual, and there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about that, because they’re trying to describe how they feel about the interconnectedness of humankind.”