Religious Test?: Email Hack Reveals Democrats Discussed Attacking Bernie Sanders’ Religious Beliefs

As the Democratic National Convention gets underway this week in Philadelphia, the Democratic National Committee is reeling from an email hacking scandal that exposed an insider discussion to possibly attack U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over his religious beliefs.

As Hillary Clinton was battling Sanders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Democratic National Committee Chief Financial Officer Brad Marshall suggested that Clinton could gain an advantage among primary voters in Kentucky and West Virginia if Sanders’ faith came into question.

“It might may (sic) no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist,” Marshall wrote in a message to other Democratic National Committee staffers that was posted on WikiLeaks.

In response to Marshall’s proposal, committee Chief Executive Officer Amy Dacey responded, “Amen.”


Bernie Sanders' beliefs should not disqualify him from being president.

It is distressing that a major political party would seek to disqualify anyone based on his or her religious beliefs – or lack thereof. The discussion of Sanders’ faith amounted to discrimination against non-believers, something that should be unacceptable in our society and runs counter to the Democratic Party Platform commitment to “protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom of religion.”

Additionally, the U.S. Constitution expressly states that there can be no religious tests for office. That means a candidate’s faith cannot stop him or her from holding an elected position, and it suggests that faith should not be a factor in determining the suitability of a candidate for office.

That Sanders’ rumored atheism would come into play during a national election is, sadly, not a surprise. Polls consistently show that atheists are disqualified from holding office in the minds of many American voters. A June 2015 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of respondents said they would flatly refuse to vote for an atheist candidate, the highest of any group included in the survey except socialists.  

Only Sanders knows for sure what he does or does not believe, though he has denied that he is an atheist. The Vermont senator, who was born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., had previously said he believes in God and added, “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”    

But what Sanders does or does not believe should be irrelevant to his qualifications for president. He isn’t running for pastor-in-chief and his decisions (or anyone else’s) as chief executive cannot establish religious teachings into law.

In the wake of the hacking scandal, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), head of the Democratic National Committee, said she will step down. Marshall apologized, but his fate remains unknown.

Unfortunately, Marshall’s inadequate mea culpa failed to make amends with the primary group he offended – atheists.

“I deeply regret that my insensitive, emotional emails would cause embarrassment to the DNC, the Chairwoman, and all of the staffers who worked hard to make the primary a fair and open process,” Marshall wrote on his Facebook page. “The comments expressed do not reflect my beliefs nor do they reflect the beliefs of the DNC and its employees. I apologize to those I offended.”

Even if the Democratic National Committee shakeup is over, Democrats, Republicans and everyone else must remember that the First Amendment’s promise of religious freedom doesn’t arbitrarily end at the ballot box, and all political parties should respect the fact that everyone has the right to believe – or not – as he or she sees fit. That is what true religious freedom is all about.

After all, when the president takes the oath of office, he or she swears to uphold all of the Constitution. That means everyone’s beliefs must be protected by the highest office in the land.