LYNCHBURG, Virginia — For about an hour Monday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did the thing his die-hard fans say he can do: Jump on any political third rail you can think of, speak his truth without equivocation, and stand his ground even in front of the American right.
At Liberty University, Monday, far from the progressive crowds the senator’s accustomed to, it was peak Sanders. Peak progressive opposition. From the moment he took the mic, Sanders began to lecture Liberty on what he thinks morality means and even on what he thinks scripture teaches politicians.
“The views that many here at Liberty University and I have on a number of very important issues are very, very different,” Sanders said in his opening line. “I believe in women’s rights and the right of a woman to control her own body. I believe in gay rights and gay marriage. Those are my views and it is no secret.”
It was a win-win for both sides: Sanders publicly relished the opportunity to show off his brand of in-your-face leftism in an epicenter of the evangelical right. Liberty was proud to show off what officials say is a willingness to present students (“nearly” 12,000, according to officials) living on campus different views beyond just the Southern, evangelical conservative view the school is known for. (On-campus students at Liberty are required to go to thrice-weekly convocations, but are given a set number of passes to skip speakers who don’t interest them.)
Most Sanders events on the campaign calendar are preaching-to-the-choir affairs. Sanders comes on stage — often before crowds the size of the Liberty audience or larger — and talks about the size of the crowd, and then says the size proves he’s right that the country is yearning for what he calls a political “revolution.”
At Liberty, the tone was much different. Sanders took on the air of a professor of progressive studies, leading a skeptical class through the left’s take on income inequality, social mobility, race, and social issues. There was a smattering of Sanders supporters in the room, some located very close to the press, so there were screams of support during Sanders’ speech. But most students sat silent as Sanders quoted Matthew 7:12 (“the golden rule”) and Amos 5:24 and explained how the passages should guide them. He eschewed a lecture about abortion and gay rights (“We disagree on those issues,” he said, “I get that”) but said that there are plenty of areas, particularly on economics, where evangelicals and progressives should agree.
Sanders wrote the speech himself, a top aide told BuzzFeed News, longhand on a legal pad. And it sounded a lot like a normal Sanders stump speech — heavy on economic inequality and policy prescriptions that would raise wages, make public college free, and require employers to provide family leave and provide universal health care coverage. But the speech had a lot more sales pitch in it than normal Sanders addresses do. The candidate has said often that he represents a mainstream outcry over the shrinking middle class and, before a crowd of conservatives, he seemed intent on finding common ground on the economic issues that have driven his campaign.
“I am not a theologian,” Sanders said before quoting Pope Francis “when he says ‘the current financial crisis originated in a profound human crisis, the denial of the primacy of the human person.’”
“Those are pretty profound words, which I hope we will all think about,” Sanders said. “In the pope’s view, and I agree with him, we are living in a nation and in a world — and the Bible speaks to this issue — in a nation and in a world which worships not love of brothers and sisters not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money and great wealth. I do not believe that is the country we should be living in.”
This is the kind of thing Sanders supporters at Sanders rallies say Sanders, self-described Democratic socialist, is uniquely qualified to do. They also say Sanders is one of the only candidates in Democratic politics unafraid of a fight and unwilling to shrink away sharply defined debates.
The Liberty event gave Sanders plenty of opportunity to show that off, too. Once Sanders completed his speech, he sat for a Q&A with David Nasser, whom school literature describes as “the chief architect of spiritual formation in both gathering and scattering strategies for making Christ known in and through Liberty University.” Officially, he’s known as the senior vice president for spiritual development.
Nasser read questions from students to Sanders but also engaged him in light debate over the topics of race and abortion. One student’s question, read by Nasser, asked Sanders how he would “bring healing to the issue of racism in this country.” Sanders spoke of the progress America had made on racial equality since the days of Jim Crow, but said racism still rears its head in some corners of politics and in the high-profile recent deaths of black people while in custody of and at the hands of police.
“That is also institutional racism and cries out for reform,” Sanders said.
“We would say, and I think for many of our students, that it’s not so much a skin issue as a sin issue,” Nasser said to huge applause from the students in the crowd. “You can change the behavior of the police and put cameras on them all day long but behavior modification can only [go so far]."
“The answer is, obviously, that we have got to change our hearts. But everyone here should know that 50, 60, 70 years ago in this country that we had segregated schools and segregated restaurants. And it took a Supreme Court and it took Martin Luther King Jr., it took millions of people to demand public policy which ended segregation.”
Nasser then moved on to what he said was the number one questions from Liberty students: How can Sanders speak about protecting the vulnerable when he supports abortion rights?
The question got the only standing ovation of the convocation. “I sense a real sincerity in you in wanting to see our children protected,” Nasser said. “Can you see, sir, how we see the child in the womb as the most vulnerable that needs protection?”
Sanders gave an answer that did not do much to win over the audience at Liberty, but echoed the complaints of hypocrisy among abortion rights opponents that comes from the pro-choice left.
“I do understand,” Sanders said. “But I do also understand ... that it is improper for the United States government or state government to tell every woman in this country the very painful and difficult choice she has to make on that issue. I honestly don’t want to be too provocative here, but very often conservatives say, you know, ‘Get the government out of my life. I don’t want the government telling me what to do.’”
“Now, on this, very sensitive issue, on which this nation is divided — a lot of people agree with you, a lot of people agree with me — I respect absolutely a family that says no, we are not going to have an abortion. I understand that and I respect that,” Sanders went on. “But I would hope that other people respect the very painful and difficult choice that many women feel they need to make and don’t want the government telling them what they have to do.”
Sanders, in full progressive mode, then flipped the question back on Nasser. The Republican budget in Congress, he said, didn’t do anything to protect the vulnerable children Nasser said he was concerned about. He cited cuts to health care, education, and welfare spending proposed by the GOP.
“To add insult to injury in that budget,” Sanders said, “the Republicans provided over $250 billion over a 10-year period to the top two-tenths of 1%. I don’t think that is a moral budget.”