(JTA) – A surrogate for Donald Trump said Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, was an atheist who needed a “come to Jesus” meeting.
Pastor Mark Burns, a televangelist, was warming up a crowd Monday at a rally for Trump in Hickory, North Carolina, a day before primaries in that state and four others.
“Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t believe in God, how in the world are we gonna let Bernie … really?” Burns said as the crowd waited for the arrival of Trump, the front-runner in the Republican U.S. presidential race. “He gotta meet Jesus, he gotta have a coming to Jesus meeting.”
Burns did not respond to a query from JTA on Twitter about whether he knew Sanders is Jewish. He later told CNN that his remarks were not aimed at Sanders’ Judaism.
Sanders “is most definitely not a religious-minded individual,” he said. “Obviously, if he was ever elected president he would be the first non-Christian, and that’s not an issue that he is not a Christian, so to speak, so this is not anything bad about the Jewish people.”
Burns said he wanted Sanders to “talk more about the importance of faith. Talk about the importance of religious liberties. Obviously he’s Jewish, he could talk about his Jewish heritage.”
Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont who has mounted a strong campaign for the Democratic presidential nod, has said he embraces a “spirituality” of helping those who are suffering, although he stops short of outright saying he believes in God.
A number of conservative critics have cited Sanders’ embrace of social democracy, a system prevalent in Western Europe that allows for an expansive social safety net, as being a form of “communism.”