Saturday, 12 December 2015

What Bernie Sanders means for freethought and equality in the US

Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination in the 2016 US presidential election. The significance of the first woman president likely succeeding the first African American one should not be trivialized. But given the longstanding hostile treatment of religious and social minorities and nonbelievers in US society and politics, the election of her nearest rival—the Jewish democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as "not particularly religious"—would be just as historically momentous.

Sanders’ identity as the son of Jews who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for poverty in New York City, with his father’s family being murdered in the Holocaust, is particularly prescient given the ongoing Middle East refugee crisis. Refugees seeking asylum in the US are being attacked and scapegoated by multiple states, as well as politicians and commentators, as toxic and sinister elements, just as Jewish refugees from Nazism in the 1930s were labelled as potentially communist undesirables and denied safe havensome of them, such as Anne Frank and her family, ultimately falling victim to the Holocaust due to this nationally disgraceful dereliction. Sanders himself made note of his family history in October when he consoled Muslim-American student Remaz Abdelgader and reiterated his stance against Islamophobia, which he compared to the antisemitism his ancestors faced: while Donald Trump and Ted Cruz advocate barring the entry of Muslim asylum seekers, with the overtly fascist Trump advocating the complete exclusion of all Muslims and mass deportation of preexisting refugees, it is Sanders who cites the rise of Hitler as his reason for becoming politically conscious in his youth.

Republican xenophobia slurs professed Christian Barack Obama as a Muslim, and associates his caricatured blackness with dangerous, apparently socialist radicalism. Historically, even white Americans were targeted by the religious right simply for not being Protestants, many of them sharing movements like working class trade unionism with targets of white supremacist racism. The liberal Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy, dubbed a communist by his opponents, was accused of being in thrall to the papacy and thus unable to serve as president with integrity, and his far-right, segregationist enemies perpetrated terrorist attacks against Jewish communities and synagogues just as they did against black churches and civil rights campaigners. Sanders was among those Jewish allies of the civil rights movement, as a student activist organising sit-ins and civil disobedience against segregation; today he is a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Having referred to Michael Brown, a teenager shot dead by a white police officer while unarmed, as a "bad actor", Republican favorite Ben Carson dismisses BLM with the retort "all lives matter", a frequent dog whistle of white commentators seeking to deflect focus from endemic anti-black racism in America. Carson also portrays Muslim refugees as savage and animal, the same kind of dehumanization black Americans like him are commonly subjected to.

In contrast, Sanders acknowledges racism as critical to the systemic police brutality faced by ethnic minorities in the US, recognizing the corrupt criminal justice system that impacts non-white Americans—especially those impacted by gross socioeconomic inequality—pervasively.

In the US, Christian fundamentalism has operated in tandem with racism, oppression and discrimination, from the genocide of indigenous peoples to slavery and segregation. It continues to wage misogynist wars against reproductive rights, force through homophobic and transphobic legislation and obstruct the teaching of science, orchestrating the cruel and reckless indoctrination of children with creationism and abstinence-only education. Though Sanders has not specified a view on the question of God, he displays the humanism of a secular Jew: "It is not a good thing to believe," Sanders states, ‘that as human beings, we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people."

Throughout his career, he has been consistently committed to the separation of church and state, a congressional bulwark against the efforts of his country’s Christian Taliban to enforce antediluvian theocratic agendas. He has done so in a country where, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, deistic anti-Trinitarian Thomas Jefferson was smeared as an "infidel" and "atheist", forced to declare a belief in God in order to become president. In seven US states, atheists who refuse to pledge to serve God are barred from public office, with a 2014 opinion poll revealing that atheists are the second least trusted religious group among the US public, with Muslims the least tolerated.

Regardless of how one views his politics and actions, Barack Obama’s election as the first black president remains an indisputable landmark of social progress in the American nation. And the same would have to be said if a Jewish socialist humanist from Vermont inherited his office.

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