The average American knows little about Jane Sanders. Of the spouses of presidential candidates, former president Bill Clinton is, of course, already a towering figure in the public eye. Melania Trump is a conventionally attractive former model, and has a delightful rags-to-riches story—not that she has any desire to be the focus of her husband’s tumultuous campaign. Jane O’Meara Sanders, on the other hand, has quietly stood beside her husband throughout his political career, taking on different hats such as “administrative assistant” and “policy analyst” and “media buyer.”
Jane is an academic who has served in various positions at colleges across Vermont. She has a PhD in Leadership Studies in Politics and Education from the Union Institute and University, and often juggled her academic career with her husband’s campaigns. Like Bernie, Jane came from a family where the fight for economic reform was important and social justice values were imprinted on her from a young age. She’s a great match for Bernie personally and politically, and made a devoted husband out of a man who once wrote a manifesto on free love back in the ‘60s.
She’s also a Roman Catholic.
Bernie Sanders seems to have purposefully gone out of his way to avoid calling attention to his Jewishness. He shrugs and simply repeats that he isn’t “actively involved in organized religion.” But he has also stated that he does believe in God, and spent a few years in Israel at a leftist kibbutz. Even if he’s not attending temple every Sabbath, there’s no denying the fact that Bernie Sanders is the first Jewish candidate to ever win a state’s presidential primary. If he won the election, he’d be the first Jewish president ever.
Moreover, if Bernie won the election, he and Jane would be the first president and First Lady in an interfaith marriage. That may not mean much to some people, but for millions of interfaith couples in our religiously-diverse nation, it would help break barriers and bring understanding to how interfaith relationships function in our society. With Barack and Michelle Obama, we had our first black couple in the White House. But if we had Bernie and Jane Sanders in the White House, it would help to normalize not only interfaith romantic relationships, but interfaith relationships in general: coworkers, friends, and relatives.
For some, it’s already the norm. Pew Research Center says that since 2010, 39% of marriages have been with partners who are outside a different religious group than their own—including the nonreligious. Of unmarried couples, nearly half are living with a romantic partner who shares a different faith than them. Before 1960, only 18% of couples were in an interfaith marriage. According to some studies, couples in interfaith marriages are actually less likely to get divorced and might have stronger marriages. So not only would an interfaith relationship in the White House help increase tolerance, it’s increasingly representative of the American people.
Jane isn’t Bernie’s first wife, either. If Bernie was elected president, he’d be the only president other than Ronald Reagan to have been divorced. From 1964 to 1966, Bernie was married to Deborah Shiling (now remarried and named Deborah Messing), who was also Jewish. The couple volunteered together at a kibbutz. The union resulted in no children and ended in divorce, but like Ronald Reagan’s first wife Jane Wyman, Messing is still an ally of Bernie’s political campaign. In speaking to the Daily Mail, she said, “'I really don't want to say much. All I can say is I believe in Bernie Sanders and I am a strong supporter.”
It wasn’t until years later than Jane O’Meara, a humble political activist who mostly chooses to forgo the title of “doctor” despite her doctorate, met Bernie Sanders on the night he won his mayoral campaign in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. The pair began a seven-year-courtship that culminated in a wedding—a civil ceremony, a common choice among interfaith couples—in 1988.
Not only did the couple blend their faiths, they also blended their families. Jane had three children from a previous marriage: Dave, Carina, and Heather, who also identify as Catholic. They are listed in Bernie’s official Senate biography as his children, with no distinction from his biological son, Levi. Among their four children, Bernie and Jane now have seven grandchildren.
These children and grandchildren have had an experience that more and more families are having: growing up peacefully with parents, step-parents, and siblings of multiple faith backgrounds. Some children of interfaith marriages are even starting to identify as having two religions in the same way that children born to parents of different races identify as being biracial or multiracial.
For someone with such a rich family life that truly embodies the diversity of the American family, Bernie Sanders is almost annoyingly mum on the subject of his personal life. Forever focused on the issues of economic injustice, poverty, and social reform, he is missing out on an excellent opportunity to show potential voters just how much he identifies with them, especially considering that more liberal voters tend to be more approving of interfaith relationships than conservative voters.
Despite the fact that some of his father’s relatives were killed in the Holocaust, Bernie continues to downplay his Judaism. Some people criticize this, as if it’s somehow related to self-shame or perhaps a marketing tactic to benefit a majority Christian nation. Chelsea Clinton is happy to discuss her mother’s religion and her own interfaith marriage for increased exposure for the Hillary campaign. Why won’t Bernie take the opportunity to do the same?
But maybe the truth is that, because of his interfaith marriage, Bernie wants to present himself as a man who sees the value of the positive impact of different religions across the nation, and chooses to focus on what Americans have in common instead of how we are different. After all, this is a man who spoke to an evangelical Christian college on a Jewish holiday. This is a man who is happy to attend mosques in spite of President Obama’s continual harassment for doing the same. And more importantly, this is a man who is married to a practicing Roman Catholic. It goes beyond tolerance: It's actively embracing the “others” of the world.
It might be easy to see the influence that Bernie’s political career has had on Jane, considering that she is now seen as the dutiful, supportive spouse in a campaign where Bernie’s primary opponent Hillary Clinton is an old-school feminist who refused to ignore her own aspirations as her husband, Bill Clinton, continually sought his own.
But it might not be as easy to visualize the effect that Jane’s Catholic faith has had on Bernie. Like her husband, Jane doesn’t attend mass every Sunday. But she still considers herself a believer and has been known to seek out St. Anne's Shrine, a pilgrimage site for Catholics on Vermont’s Lake Champlain Islands.
Bernie Sanders loves to bring up Pope Francis in his campaign speeches. The two share a lot in common: both are beloved figures fighting for seemingly more progressive values for archaic, distrusted institutions. And in the way that Pope Francis believes, perhaps, that he can breathe life into the Roman Catholic Church off the heels of a horrific, widespread sexual assault allegation scandal among priests in the church—perhaps Bernie Sanders hopes to do the same in a country where fear and wealth seem to be the reigning rulers.
Jennifer C. Martin is a writer based in Richmond, VA. Her work has previously been featured on Gawker, UPROXX, xoJane, and Time, among others.