So, the "neutral" DNC secretly plotted to hurt Bernie Sanders' campaign by getting him asked if he was an atheist. Did the DNC succeed in this? Sanders was in fact asked repeatedly in public fora about his religion. Did the DNC make those questions happen? I don't know. It's worth investigating. The DNC was in touch with Anderson Cooper who asked one of the questions to Bernie, but I've seen no indication they influenced his questions. As I recall, Cooper was himself intent on asking every possible non-policy fluff question he could think of that day. Same for Jimmy Kimmel who asked another of the questions to Bernie.
More significant is what we already know if we choose to see it: Being exposed as an atheist by any other name did not hurt Bernie Sanders in the least. That is to say, in U.S. politics now, if you present an atheistic point of view but don't call it that, you're totally fine. You could even get yourself nominated by the Democratic Party if it weren't so corrupt. If Bernie Sanders were to go before a randomly sampled audience of Americans right now and face these two questions:
1) Do you believe in God?
2) Do you still support the DNC and the legitimacy of its primary results?
... his answer to the first would win applause, although he would not say he believes in God. But his answer to the second would get him roundly booed, although he would declare his allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Sanders' website calls him "secular" and "not particularly religious." His answers to a religion question during that CNN "town hall" were typical. A member of the audience asked about religion and race, and Sanders answered only about race. Then the moderator asked again about religion. And this was Sanders' answer:
"It's a guiding principle in my life. Absolutely it is. You know, everybody practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings. I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children that are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can't afford their prescription drugs, you know what? That impacts you, that impacts me, and I worry very much about a society where some people spiritually say, 'It doesn't matter to me. I got it. I don't care about other people.' So, my spirituality is that we are all in this together, and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That is my very strong spiritual feeling."
It's also my very strong non-spiritual feeling. But that was a typical Bernie answer, one he's given many times, typical even in its focus on only 4% of humanity and on only a particular type of homeless people. Some states, by the way, are making huge strides toward ending the shame of homelessness for veterans, so that soon all homeless people in the United States may be people who have never been part of a mass-murder operation. I point this out not to oppose it. Better more people with homes, no matter how it's done! And I point it out not to quibble with Sanders' statement of generosity and humanism, but to suggest that part of how Sanders slipped a completely irreligious answer past an audience that asked a religious question is that Sanders identified himself with the true U.S. religion -- the religion of war, the religion of national exceptionalism. Who can forget Ron Paul being booed in a primary debate for applying the golden rule to non-Americans?
When Sanders is asked explicitly if he "believes in God," he also answers, "What my spirituality is about is that we're all in this together." Exactly what my non-spirituality is about. I think it's safe to assume politicians will never be asked if they believe in death (which television sponsors would be pleased by that topic?), so "God" is the question they'll get, and they won't be required to answer it. The United States has moved against religion and even more so against "organized religion." Some of us always preferred the organized part (the community, the music, etc.) to the religion, but the larger trend here is a rejection of elite institutions telling us how to run our lives while demonstrably running the world into the ground. And who has more to answer for in that regard than God?
Rejecting organized religion while proclaiming an individual "spirituality" may be all that is needed, and that is tremendous news. That Sanders has done this while professing an ideology of generosity and solidarity, and winning applause for that, is even better news. Studies find that lack of religion can correlate with greater generosity, as certainly seems to be the case with the Scandinavian societies Sanders points to as models. (Seventeen percent of Swedes, as compared to 65% of U.S. Americans, say religion is "important".)
A majority in the United States say they wouldn't vote for an atheist, but for many atheism, like gender, race, sexual preference, and other identifiers is now a matter of self-identification. Someone must choose to call themselves an atheist. Just having no use for theism doesn't qualify them. The media also seems to have no direct interest in attacking candidates on religion. Nobody pays them to do that. And it doesn't show a lot of potential as a weapon. Donald Trump was seen as the least religious candidate in the field, and some of the most religious voters say they support him and just don't care. In addition, Sanders is a supporter of religious freedom, tolerance, and even tax exemptions. He doesn't fit the mold of the bigoted atheist who finds Islam dangerously more religious than Christianity. The media is also no big fan of Ted Cruz, who was on a Dubya-like mission from God. All of these factors seem to have made it possible to run for president of the United States on a platform of pure enlightenment humanism. I didn't think I'd live to see that.
To some extent people also excuse religious differences as cultural, accepting that people "believe" what their parents told them. The same could apply with similar logic to partisanship, but it is not so applied, not to anything like the same extent. That is to say, if you watch the Democratic Party rig an election for an unpopular candidate like Hillary Clinton and you go on supporting the Democratic Party, most people are going to blame or credit that decision on nobody but yourself.