With Hillary Clinton now the official Democratic nominee and a hard fight against Donald Trump underway, what are voters to make of last week’s revelation that the DNC tried to weaponized her former rival Bernie Sanders’ (ir)religion? According to WikiLeaks, in the middle of the night on May 5, DNC chief financial officer Brad Marshall sent an email to DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda, Deputy Communications Director Mark Paustenbach, and CEO Amy Lacey suggesting that someone publicly question Sanders’ faith in a Q&A forum with the Vermont Senator, forcing him to either admit to being a religious Jew or, even better for Clinton, the email suggests, an atheist. According to WikiLeaks, Marshall wrote in an email with the subject line “no shit”:
“It might may 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.”
(Let me interrupt myself and ask, Who are these “Southern Baptist peeps”? Just. No. No, Mr. Marshall. People who would “draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist” are not your “peeps.” Mr. Marshall, I implore you never to say the word peeps again outside of the context of an Easter basket.)
In his email, Marshall is proposing that would-be Democratic primary voters in Appalachia, particularly those who are Southern Baptist, will hesitate to vote for someone who is an atheist, hopefully by enough points to allow Hillary Clinton a primary win in those states. (And, indeed, Clinton won in Kentucky by just 1924 votes. Sanders beat Clinton soundly in West Virginia, where he won by 15.6%) Marshall further explained a few minutes later to the group that the problem was a “Jesus thing.”
By the measure of a “Jesus thing,” of course, being a Jew or an atheist would presumably cost Sanders voters in Kentucky and West Virginia–and, one would assume by this logic, the many other states where Southern Baptists dominate. Indeed, among the ten states with the highest portion of Southern Baptists—Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana—Sanders won only Oklahoma, which also happens to have the smallest African American population (under 8%, compared to Mississippi’s 37.3%).
In response to Marshall’s suggestion, no one else in the group intercedes to say, “No, we’re ‘stronger together,” or “Let’s not weaponize religion” or “That’s a Republican trick. We don’t do that. When they go low, we go high.” No one even says the pragmatic answer, which is to point out that religious nones are the single largest religious demographic among Democratic voters, so not only would they likely not care about Sanders’ irreligion, they might well see it as an asset. They certainly wouldn’t like seeing, however, the DNC appeal to voters’ presumed religious prejudices.
Instead of squashing a terrible, anti-democratic pandering to religious bigotry, Amy Lacey responds “AMEN”—So be it! Marshall’s email was sent in the middle of the night, so maybe you can chalk it up sleep deprivation that comes at the end of a long and unexpectedly hard primary season. But Lacey sent hers around 12:30 in the afternoon. Somehow in the light of day, this idea still seemed like a good one.
Okay, so, bad idea, but did it matter? It doesn’t seem to have gone any further, at least in the email planning. And I haven’t reviewed all the Sanders-voter interactions in the states of Kentucky and West Virginia to figure out if, indeed, he was asked a question about religion.
The thing is, if Sanders had been asked about his religion, it would have been perfectly fine. Months earlier, at the debate in Flint, Michigan, he had already been asked about his faith, and he’d handled the question just fine. He cites his family history of as victims of the Holocaust as a reason why he stands against extremist ideology, credits (by name) a series of world religions—even putting Christianity first and Judaism second in that list—for their focus on doing good to others (the Golden Rule), and then turns to speak again about the issues, presumably implying that the Golden Rule means we need to care about homelessness among veterans and safe drinking water, for example. Moderator Anderson Cooper continued to press specifically on Sanders’ Judaism with an irrelevant question that suggested that Sanders was keeping his Judaism “in the background.” In response, Sanders said that he was proud to be Jewish—a comment that buoyed some Jewish viewers even as many liberals wondered why in the world Cooper was asking it.
In turn, an audience member, Denise, asks Clinton who she prays for, and Clinton begins by stating that she knows Denise, has attended church with Denise, has prayed with Denise’ congregation, and has even led Denise’s congregation in prayer. Now, primary debates rank slightly above reality television in terms of the honesty viewers can expect, but, really? Sanders gets a question that amounts to “Are you embarrassed to be Jewish, or do you just think your Jewishness will be held against you at the polls?” while Clinton gets a question from an audience member whose church she has visited multiple times? Commenters noted the problem with the questions at the time. Months later, they can see in the WikiLeaks that, at least for some people in Democratic leadership, appeals to religious prejudice are an acceptable tactic.
In an interview with The Intercept after the email was publicly revealed, Marshall, perhaps unsurprisingly, said he didn’t recall the conversation. That in itself is worrisome and revealing. I’m sure that the CFO of the DNC has a lot on his plate, but I’d rather hope that a plan to gin up anti-Semitic sentiment would have stuck in his mind, that such things aren’t such a common occurrence that he can’t recall the details of this one. Marshall later shared on his Facebook page, this non-apology:
“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. 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.”
What Marshall misses here—and what those who have blown off these emails as irrelevant to the final outcome or as just politics being its usual dirty self—is that religious nones are a bigger demographic than Catholics and nearly as large as evangelicals (23% to 25.4%), they are growing, they are disproportionately young (and thus the future of politics), and they are pretty thoroughly left-leaning, seeing Sanders more positively than they did Clinton during the primary. Those folks don’t need to see the Democratic Party using anti-Semitism and religious bigotry as a wedge to divide people. They reject cynical pandering to old prejudices; it’s the very reason they are leaving their conservative churches in droves. Such tactics can only discourage affiliation with the party, lower voter turnout, and discourage civic engagement. The risk, then, wasn’t that Sanders would get votes that the DNC wanted for Clinton—it’s that our faith in politics will start going the way of our faith in religion.