What was Bernie Sanders doing at Liberty University?


Students pray before a speech by Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

On Monday morning at 10:30, many eyes were fixed to a telecast of Bernie Sanders addressing what some expected to be his toughest audience yet: the conservative student body at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Sanders is perhaps the most liberal candidate in the 2016 race. In addition to his progressive positions on gay rights and abortion, he is a self-identified socialist and atheist. Liberty, founded in 1971 by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, is largely populated by conservative evangelical students and faculty who presumably disagree with Sanders’ politics.

Yet over the summer, Liberty’s administration invited Sanders to address the student body during a convocation gathering, which the school hosts three times a week during academic terms. And Sanders, surprising perhaps even the officials who extended the invitation, accepted.

The question for many observers both before and after the speech was: Why? Bernie Sanders at Liberty University is an intriguing, unconventional pairing. But beyond the curiosity factor, what did anyone expect the visit to accomplish?

It’s fair to say that neither Sanders’ campaign nor Liberty officials were under the illusion that they would change each other’s minds or suddenly erase profound ideological differences. “It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community,” Sanders said upon announcing his scheduled trip to the evangelical school. Similarly, Jerry Falwell Jr., the current chancellor of Liberty and son of the school’s founder, agreed that many on his campus strongly disagreed with some of the senator’s political positions. It’s for that reason, Falwell told me in a recent email, that he admires Sanders’ “willingness to venture outside his comfort zone.”

Liberty University, though certainly not the strictest of Christian colleges, is a school known for its social, theological and political conservatism. Students and faculty are prohibited from using tobacco or alcohol, and from engaging in premarital or extramarital sexual activity, according to the school’s handbook, “The Liberty Way.” The school is also home to the Center for Creation Studies, an academic institute whose purpose is “to research, promote, and communicate a robust young-Earth creationist view of Earth history.” When Ted Cruz needed a symbolically significant location from which to announce his presidential bid, he traveled down to Lynchburg to share the moment with his fellow evangelicals.

Sanders isn’t the first Democratic senator to land in Lynchburg — but it’s been a while. More than 30 years ago, Ted Kennedy addressed Liberty’s student body as Falwell sat a few feet away from the podium. The two remained friends until the founder of the Moral Majority died in 2007. Kennedy even wrote a recommendation letter for Falwell’s son to attend law school. “I am sure the faculty was surprised to see a Kennedy recommending a Falwell,” the younger Falwell once wrote, “but I guess it helped, because I was admitted.”

Still, it’s one thing to invite a Democratic politician to campus — and several steps further to welcome a self-declared “not particularly religious” socialist. (Sanders is a nonreligious Jew.) Religious people of different faiths can often find common ground in their acknowledgment of some kind of higher power. But for Sanders, commonality would have to be established with fewer nods to the metaphysical.

This was one of the most interesting aspects of Sanders’ convocation speech. Unlike other politicians — say, Donald Trump, who has practically rebranded himself as a Bible-loving Christian — the religious views of Sanders aren’t really open to on-the-spot revisions. During his remarks, Sanders referenced God several times but didn’t try to adopt a pose of piety. In a political climate that often rewards politicians who turn up the God-talk to play a room, it was refreshing to watch Sanders speak to an audience full of born-again Christians without pretending he was one of them.

That doesn’t mean Sanders wasn’t able to connect with his religious audience. Indeed, Sanders showed himself well acquainted with the Bible and worked passages into his message. Invoking Jesus’ golden rule and the prophet Amos’ warning against injustice, Sanders invited his religious audience to ask themselves if the current state of the country affirmed Christian principles or lost sight of them. “In my view,” said Sanders, “it would be hard for anyone in this room today to make the case that the United States of America, our great country, a country which we all love — it would be hard to make a case that we are a just society.”


Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivers an address to Liberty University students. (Photo: Jay Paul/Reuters)

Sanders’ speech was built around the concept of justice. That was the common ground he argued that he and his audience occupied: the desire to work for a more just world. “How can we talk about justice when we turn our backs on the children of our country?” he asked, citing a statistic claiming that 20 percent of all American children, and 40 percent of black children, live in poverty.

Like Pope Francis — whom Sanders referenced in his talk and has praised as “a voice of conscience all over the world” — the Vermont senator thinks it’s important that religious people focus their political energies on issues of justice and inequality rather than controversial social issues.

“I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues you feel very strongly about,” Sanders told the crowd at Liberty. “We disagree on those issues. But let me suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and the entire world that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on.” Those other issues, Sanders went on to suggest, include “the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, the collapse of the middle class, the high level of childhood poverty, [and] climate change.”

That argument resonates with at least a few Liberty students, like Erin Kotlan, who wrote in the Atlantic prior to Sanders’ appearance that “the majority of Sanders’ political ideas seem to fit well with my faith.” Echoing some of the senator’s righteous anger, she added, “Jesus will not recognize those who refuse to care for the impoverished people in their communities.”


But while Sanders may have hoped to convince some of Kotlan’s classmates to expand their definition of values issues, his campaign could have more prosaic ambitions for the trip to Liberty. Michael Cromartie, vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sees Sanders’ visit as a sign that his campaign recognizes the importance of appealing to religious voters. “Despite the rise of the ‘nones’ [those who self-identify as having no religious affiliation], we are still a very religious country, and every serious candidate must make attempts to reach out to” religious adherents.

As for Liberty University, the school also stands to reap practical benefits from hosting Sanders. Emily Greenhouse of Bloomberg Politics notes that Liberty can point to Sanders’ speech “to help it maintain its nonprofit status.” Both that status and the school’s accreditation “depend on carefully managing its religious and political affiliations,” Sarah Kaplan explained in the Washington Post.

Still, beyond the political factors at play, Sanders’ appearance at Liberty offers a way forward for a nation struggling to engage in productive bipartisan dialogue.

The image of two men with radically different political ideals sharing a laugh; of a school spokesman bowing his head with Sanders in prayer for the common good; of a majority-conservative student body applauding a socialist politician’s call for social justice — these images might show a politically divided nation that civil dialogue and disagreement can coexist.

This was the takeaway for Tré Goins-Phillips, a conservative student who graduated from Liberty last spring. “There are not many policies on which Bernie and I agree,” he admits. “But his message of common ground resonated with me. The government isn’t working, and it will continue to be dysfunctional unless people like Bernie stand in the gap and build bridges.”

Sanders’ willingness to venture into the conservative religious den of the proverbial lion speaks volumes about his desire to reach across the aisle. But will his strategy work? That depends on how you define political success.

“Sanders didn’t gain my vote,” said Goins-Phillips, “but he gained my respect.”

For Sanders, that may mean mission accomplished.

Brandon Ambrosino is a writer in Baltimore.