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This Week in God, 10.31.15

The U.S. has never had a Jewish president -- or an agnostic president. Would Bernie Sanders' election be a breakthrough for diversity in more ways than one?
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to guests at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Oct. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to guests at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Oct. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.
First up from the God Machine this week is the prospect of a religio-political breakthrough in the 2016 presidential election, which hasn't yet generated much attention.
In American history, just about every president has been a Protestant of one form or another, except John F. Kennedy, who was Roman Catholic. (I say "just about" because labeling Thomas Jefferson's faith gets a little tricky.) But the Washington Post reported this week that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has the potential to bring some diversity to that group -- possibly in more ways than one.

First, Sanders would be our first Jewish president. And second, while Sanders is culturally Jewish, he has said that he's "not particularly religious" and has been described by some as agnostic. Asked during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's show [on Oct. 22] whether he believed in God, Sanders demurred.

Sanders doesn't dodge many questions, but when the ABC late-night host asked the senator whether he believes in God, Sanders replied, "I am who I am, and what I believe in and what my spirituality is about, is that we're all in this together. That I think it is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people.... This is not Judasim. This is what Pope Francis is talking about -- that we cannot worship just billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that."
It's worth emphasizing that the Vermont Independent has not identified himself as an atheist. On the contrary, as the Post's piece noted, Sanders told USA Today in September, "I believe that there is a connection between all living things, and that my belief in God requires me to do all that I can to follow the 'Golden Rule,' to do unto others and as I would have them do unto me."
That said, Sanders, who has described himself as culturally Jewish, has also been described by others at times as agnostic.
Is this the sort of thing the American mainstream will notice or care about? I have no idea, but if the prospect of a possible Sanders presidency looms large in 2016, it'll be a dynamic worth watching.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump raised some eyebrows, bringing up rival candidate Ben Carson's Seventh-day Adventism for no apparent reason at a recent campaign event. Carson asked for an apology. Trump refused.
* Some fresh drama at the Vatican: "Pope Francis on Sunday appeared to lecture church elders at the closing of a landmark summit on the family here, suggesting they should not be quick to exclude a broad array of people deserving of God’s grace."
* A high-school football coach in the state of Washington was recently ordered by school officials not to pray with students before and after games. The coach ignored the instructions and was placed on paid administrative leave. At the invitation of some students, members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle attended this week's game wearing robes and spreading incense, hoping to encourage the school district to clarify the policies related to religious neutrality.
* And the Daily Beast reported this week that some privately owned religious artifacts, intended for display at the not-yet-opened Museum of the Bible, have drawn scrutiny from federal officials who are investigating the possibility of "illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq."