It doesn’t matter if Bernie Sanders gets crushed in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. He has already achieved something truly astounding. He has made it much more likely that a Muslim American will one day be president of the United States. (That shrieking sound you’re hearing is from Trump supporters.)
How? Simple, Sanders is the first non-Christian to win a presidential primary in American history when he took the New Hampshire primary. (It’s actually shocking that it has taken this long.) Consequently, Bernie has broken the religious glass ceiling, paving the way for other non-Christian faiths such as Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc. to follow in his footsteps.
The fact Sander’s Jewish faith has not become an issue speaks volumes about how America moves forward in terms of inclusivity and tolerance. Just as it’s a great testament to our nation’s increasing diversity to see our country’s first Muslim American elected member of Congress, Keith Ellison (D-MN), recent endorsement of Sanders. Sanders and Ellison, a Jew and a Muslim, now campaigning side by side truly represents what makes America exceptional.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s still anti-Semitism in America. Jews in 2014 were the biggest victims of religiously motivated hate crimes. Just check out NRA poster child Ted Nugent’s recent Facebook post that includes the names of various Jewish-American politicians next to the Israeli flag with the words: “So who is really behind gun control?” You get it, Jews want to take your guns, per Nugent.
And I’m not saying if Sanders wins a Muslim American will be next to capture the White House. (And, yes, I know, Republicans say we already have a Muslim in the White House now, but unfortunately Obama is not Muslim.) But Bernie has made that prospect more plausible.
What Bernie has achieved and what it says about America can’t be overstated. Sanders was born in 1941, a time when anti-Semitism was despicably rampant in America. Polls from the mid-1930s to late 1940s found that over half of America viewed Jews as “dishonest” and 40 percent even would accept an “anti-Jewish” campaign. (Coincidentally, Trump is showing us that about that percent of Republicans would accept an anti-Muslim campaign.) And in 1937, only 46 percent of Americans responded that they would be willing to vote for a Jewish-American presidential candidate.
I doubt many Jewish kids born in Sanders’s day even dared to dream they could one day run for president given the anti-Jewish climate. But thankfully that sentiment faded. By the late 1950s, about 60 percent of America responded that they would vote for a Jewish presidential candidate. Now that number stands at 91 percent.
Interestingly, a September 2015 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans would support a Muslim for president, which puts us at the same place as Jewish Americans in the 1950s. But there are two tremendous differences that both help and hurt the prospect of a Muslim American president.
The most glaring obstacles are the barbaric actions of ISIS and al Qaeda. While they represent a fraction of Muslims worldwide, they are causing many to fear and dislike all Muslims. Add to that Republicans like Trump who are openly whipping up hate of Muslims because it helps him with the bigoted base of the GOP. (Per exit polls, two-thirds of Republicans in New Hampshire support banning Muslims from being allowed in America.)
The good news though is that thanks to social media, opinions today can change for the better more quickly than in past decades. The best and most recent example comes from the fight for marriage equality. In 2000, only 35 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. But by 2013 that number had climbed to 55 percent.
And remarkably there was an 11 percent jump in support for marriage equality between 2008 and 2013, which many experts have attributed to the power of social media. As Brian Silva, the executive director of Marriage Equality USA, stated a few years ago, “Research has shown that really the number one thing pushing this forward is when you realize that a friend or family member is gay, and how this might affect them.” Social media allowed more people to be friends—even if just on Facebook—with a gay person, generating more empathy and building support for marriage equality.
So thanks to social media the timeline for Muslim Americans to be seen in a positive light will likely be expedited. But still it will be a challenging road for any Muslim American looking to make it the White House. Even Mitt Romney had to deal with vile anti-Mormonism in 2012 by some on the right. One of the worst examples came from the hateful Rev. Robert Jeffers who repeatedly called Mormonism a “cult” and denied that it was part of Christianity. Unsurprisingly, Jeffers is now actively supporting Trump.
Yet it’s very possible that in 2020 or 2024 someone like Rep. Ellison, now co-chair of the House progressive caucus, could throw his hat in the ring for president. Or given the success of Trump, maybe a Muslim-American celebrity will take a chance like Shaquille O’Neil, Dave Chappelle, or even Dr. Oz.
But Bernie is an inspiration to American Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, atheists, and other minority religious sects to dream that one day he or she could be elected president of the United States. And even more importantly, believe deep down that this dream could very well come true. While the prospect of another minority serving as president will piss off some Trump supporters, I can assure you it’s going to happen and this is just one of the many reasons why America is already great.