Bernie Sanders: A Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) Leader?

Sanders’ admits, “I’m not religious, only spiritual.”

What caught my eye during Sanders’ bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination was how his crowd sourced mobilization plan, popularity with millennials, and “we-are-all-one” spirituality announced him as a spiritual but not religious (SBNR) leader. While none of these items are singularly SBNR, together they evince a decidedly spiritual but not religious mood. Sanders has already admitted he’s “not religious, only spiritual,” so no guesswork needed there.[1] I don’t think it would it be pushing things to go a little farther and say he’s an SBNR leader. SBNR is a leaderless movement, which isn’t to say there aren’t charismatic individuals who lead the movement. I would argue that Bernie Sanders is one of those leaders.

Clearly, not all Sanders’ followers are SBNR. That’s as improbable as saying all Republicans are conservative Christians. Yet the values associated with SBNR in a generic sense, plus the demographic of his followers, explain quite a lot about who joined this movement and why. The Huffington Post hints that this might be the case without clearly explaining it. To fill in some of those gaps, here is an SBNR rendering the Sanders’ campaign.

Crowd Sourced

First, Bernie ran a sick crowd funding campaign, a mode of political fundraising in tune with the SBNR preference for politics that directly challenge elite power.[2]  Historically, elite challenging behaviors have consisted of petitions, boycotts, demonstrations and “buycots” (voting with your dollars). Today it also includes sponsoring political candidates and causes with crowd-sourced capital.  As stated in his campaign materials,[3] Sanders raised most of his money through small donations from individuals—“not big money donors and supporters like most candidates.” The average donation of about $27 came from more than 1 million individuals who made a record 2.5 million donations.[4] Crowd funding his campaign gave Sanders the freedom to work some new political moves because he didn’t have to scratch the backs of corporations and lobbyists.

His blatantly contraband tactics and message would appeal to many SBNRs because they undermine entrenched power structures that pin down the masses. In a sense, it precisely mirrors the decision millions of people are now making to reclaim spirituality—love, life, awareness, creativity, humanity, ethicality, if you like—from the rulers of religious life. Sanders’ genius was to deliver a message of equality through a grassroots medium capable of generating an astonishing $73 million windfall without cavorting with “the fund-raising behemoths that have corrupted American politics.”[5] In this case, the medium really was the message.

Millennial Supported

Sanders has overwhelmingly captured the political imagination of socially discontent Millennials stuck footing the bill for decades of Boomer decadence.  Saddled with huge student loans, they owe on average twice the amount of students two decades ago; many are unable to find appropriately salaried work.[6]  Sanders commitment to stopping the advancing fortunes of the elect at the expense of a bulging underclass is a platform Millennials responded to. According to a Harvard IOP Spring Poll (2016), Sander’s favourability rating among 18-29 year olds was (+23) versus (-16) for Clinton and (-20) for Trump. In short, more Millennials supported Sanders than they did Clinton and Trump combined.

Millennials are also overwhelmingly SBNR (see my post on Millennial spirituality). Research shows that compared with their elders, fully ¼ of American adults under the age of 29 are unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic,” “spiritual but not religious.” It makes sense, therefore, that Millennials would accept a candidate who claimed he’s “not religious, only spiritual,” as Sanders does. Unlike politicos who feign religious allegiance to win favour with certain voting blocks, Sanders’ integrates his spirituality seamlessly into his political and social message. It’s so seamless in fact, it’s hard to spot (notice how few did) unless you are looking for it. This winning combination of sincerity and invisibility appeals to Millennials who want religion kept out of politics.

Overall, Sanders maximized his Millennial street cred by adopting a tech savvy campaign and silently confirming their, in many cases, latent religious and social values. I’m not talking about Facebook and Twitter, which can hardly be considered innovative anymore. Rather, Millennials supported Sanders because he used the technology to show Millennials how to storm the bastions of political power using 21st century weapons—and non-violent ones at that. He signaled revolutionary fervour mingled with compassion and hope through a politically correct form of subversion that allowed Millennials to promote the candidate of their choice despite having almost no political capital.  With 8 out of 10 crowdfunding donations being made on a mobile device through social networking sites, this style of giving synced well with generation digital native.[7]

Cosmology of Connection

As discussed elsewhere on my blog, a key SBNR motif is the cosmology of connection, a theology strongly emphasized in Sanders’ campaign.[8] When asked to define his “religion” Sanders stays away from any discussion of beliefs, which can so easily divide people. He does not label his faith but simply emphasizes the oneness of humanity, and our interdependence with the natural world. There is no treehuggerishness to is remarks, just a practical insight that our humanity stems from realizing our connectedness to others, and our survival depends on accepting our connectedness to the earth. For those with slightly more traditional ethics, he also imparts the Golden Rule,[9]  a straightforward ethical philosophy popular with Millennials.[10]

Here is a transcript of a short interview on CNN. In this YouTube video, Sanders states:

Every great religion in the world…essentially comes down to “Do unto others as you would like them do unto you”… What I have believed my whole life…is that we are in this together…That’s not just words. At some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt. I hurt (for emphasis). And when my kids hurt, you hurt. And it’s very easy to turn our backs on kids who are hungry and veterans who are sleeping out on the street, and we can develop a psyche—a psychology—that says, “I don’t need to worry about that, I need to make another 5 million dollars.”

But I believe what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways we can’t even understand (gesturing towards his head). It’s beyond intellect; it’s a spiritual emotional thing. So I believe that when we do the right thing, [when] we try to treat people with respect and dignity, when we say that child who is hungry is my child, we become more human when we do that than when we say, “This whole world is me, I need more and more; I don’t care about anybody else.” That’s my religion, that’s what I believe. And I think that most people around the world, whatever their religion or colour, share that belief. We are in it together as human beings!  And it becomes more and more practical. If we destroy the planet because we don’t deal with climate change, trust me, we are all in it together. Alright? So we have got to work together. And that is what my spirituality is all about.

SBNR: The New Face of Progressive Politics?

SBNRs view life as an interconnected whole and tend to shun hierarchies and social exclusivity. The motto of the movement is inclusivity and tolerance.  These themes are nowhere more apparent than in the Sanders’ SBNR-friendly rhetoric. He promotes social harmony through actions such as creating fair and humane immigration policy, fighting for women’s rights, empowering tribal nations, and fighting for LGBT equality.[11]

I realize that many who supported Sanders would not consider themselves SBNR, and as such, would not describe him a a spiritual leader. Yet since Sanders’ appealed to Millennials who are strongly inclined SBNR religious and social values, it makes sense they would respond to the his subtly spiritualized political message. For the first time ever, SBNRs heard their values echoed in the message of a political candidate who defines a better future as one where wealth is no longer concentrated in the hands of few, and people respect each other and the earth because they understand that separation is illusory. If this analysis is correct, we have just witnessed the emergence of SBNRs as the new face of the political left.



[1] See also

[2] Chandler 2011, The Social Ethic of Religiously Unaffiliated Spirituality, 294-317. See also my article with the same title in Religion Compass. Both are available on my page.

[3] See for details.

[4] See


[6] See

 [8] For a discussion of the theology of SBNR see Chandler 2011, Social Ethic, 274-293. See also Robert Fuller’s classic Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, (Oxford, 2001).

[9] See Nancy Ammerman

[10] Larry Braskamp, “The Religious and Spiritual Journeys of Millennials,” The American University in a Post-secular Age, (Oxford, 2008), 121.

[11] See for details and other examples.