The Secular Righteousness of Bernie Sanders

You might have heard, but it’s an election year this year. As someone who spent his growing years planning to become President one day, this season always excites me. This election year has of course been that much more exciting with how particularly unpredictable it’s been. Trump? Seriously? The non-traditional candidate who has intrigued me the most though is Bernie Sanders, the fiery 74 year old Independent Senator from Vermont.

Before continuing I should confess- I’m not feeling the Bern. But many of my friend are. Judging by the admittedly small sample size of my Facebook feed, Bernie is insanely popular with my fellow young people. if Millennials would just get out and vote as much as the older generations do he would no doubt be the run-away winner of the Democratic nomination. But this post isn’t about Bernie’s policies or electability. It’s not even about his delightfully disheveled hair. It’s about his rhetoric.

More than any other candidate Bernie draws on the language of right and wrong to make his pitch. Politics for Bernie isn’t a job, it’s a crusade.

If you listen to a Bernie speech you’ll inevitably witness a strong appeal to morality and basic decency presented as the reason he should be our next President.

In Bernie’s world it’s wrong that the wage gap between rich and poor is greater in our country than anywhere else in the world. It’s wrong that a college education has become prohibitively expensive for young people. It’s wrong that healthcare is still inaccessible to millions of Americans. Shoot in some speeches he’ll hit all that just in the introduction!

While every politician relies on a moral appeal to one degree or another, Bernie has made it into an art form. As a preacher myself I can’t help but admire the righteous fury with which he moves crowds and fills stadiums. It’s not policy that Bernie wants to talk about, although he certainly can. No he’s most comfortable when the conversation stays at the level of right and wrong, basic decency, a return to a more just time. And it’s those moral appeals that have made Bernie wildly popular with my generation.

What I can’t stop wondering though is how this can be. As someone who believes wholeheartedly in absolute truth and morality I’ve built my life on what Bernie’s selling.

There is right, there is wrong, and we ought to consider these things in our politics. Yet as someone who’s on the opposite side of the aisle from Bernie politically I’ve spent that same life being told by my peers that you can’t do that. You can’t tell everyone else what’s right and wrong. Your truth is your truth, my truth is my truth, and it’s not up to you to tell me what is or isn’t right. You can’t legislate morality. That’s been the political calling card of my generation to this point.

Which is why the rise of Bernie is so confounding. What’s so fascinating about his appeal to righteousness is that it’s a secular righteousness. He’s the most secular candidate to ever run for President, and the generation flocking to him shares that secularity more than any that came before it. Bernie is making a moral appeal based on principles he holds to be absolutely true to a generation that has by and large rejected the existence of such a thing prima facie.

So in light of this campaign of secular righteousness I’d like to make a plea for rational consistency for those that are feeling the Bern.

If it’s ok for a candidate to talk about right and wrong when it comes to economic issues, then don’t call me a backwards thinking extremist for believing it’s just as ok for candidates to talk about right and wrong when it comes to other ones.

This of course though is the rub. Bernie’s unexpected success reveals that all this talk about the place of “right and wrong” when it comes to policy has never been about rejecting morality’s place in politics at all; it’s been about redefining it. What I’m speaking about of course is, as D.A. Carson has so aptly coined it, “the intolerance of tolerance.” It’s this intolerance of tolerance that explains how you can frame a discussion about economics in terms of right and wrong and be applauded as a working class hero, but frame one about sexuality in the same way and be rejected as a bigot.

Fortunately there’s a better way. You see as much as I may disagree with Bernie’s policies I don’t take issue with his appeal to morality to back them. Contrary to popular belief it’s to legislate without legislating morality! To legislate at all is to make some kind of decision about what is and is not right behavior. That’s why I’m all right with Bernie building his campaign around the call to morality that he has.

But if it’s o.k. for Bernie to talk in frank terms about the place of right and wrong in our politics, it should be o.k. for the other side to do so too. Either right and wrong are part of our policy decisions or they aren’t. If they are then we should be able to talk about the moral angles of every issue without the fear we’ll be shamed and silenced as bigots.

Because if right and wrong’s o.k. to talk about, but only when that definition of right and wrong fits the prevailing wisdom of the moment, we’re in a dark, dark place indeed.

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