In case you missed it, Bernie Sanders gave a speech at Liberty University Monday, venturing deep out of his liberal comfort zone and into religious conservative domain. Although he sternly defended abortion rights and asserted the United States was founded on "racist principles," his main objective was to find common ground with the socially conservative audience on wealth inequality. He even invoked the Bible's teachings on compassion, focusing heavily on the idea of morality. While the Vermont senator was lauded for his eagerness to face staunch conservatism, what many don't realize is that Liberty University, the biggest Christian college in the world, was the one to solicit Sanders' visit, suggesting that partisan polarization may not be the omnipotent force we think it is.
"Do you think it's moral when 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African American children are living in poverty?" He asked the evangelical audience. "In my view, there is no justice, and morality suffers, when in our wealthy country, millions of children go to bed hungry." In spite of the fact that Sanders very explicitly addressed the differences between their beliefs on same-sex marriage or reproductive rights, Sanders' 27-minute speech was overall politely received, according to CNN. In fact, he had a small yet enthusiastic cheering section. He is the first major Democratic candidate in recent history to speak at the school.
Liberty University was founded in 1971 by televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell as a private non-profit dedicated to building a Christian academic community. At one point, interracial dating and wearing jeans were prohibited on campus. Even today, racy songs and skirts shorter than two inches above the knee are not allowed. And yet, here was Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist and defender of Planned Parenthood, quoting Matthew 7:12 while fiercely standing behind gay rights.
"Too often in our country — and I think both sides bear responsibility for us — there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other," Sanders said in his address, which was mandatory for all students. Indeed, there was no shouting. In fact, compared to some traditional liberal universities, Liberty was more than gracious. At Rutgers University last spring, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had to rescind her acceptance as commencement speaker after students and faculty protests. Though he wasn't nearly as popular as when Ted Cruz visited the campus in March, at least some students were touched by Sanders' message.
"I liked almost everything he said," Sarah Fleet, a sophomore, told The New York Times. Like most students, she didn't agree with Sanders' views on abortion; however, his calls to help address childhood poverty and hunger did resonate with her.
More than anything, Sanders' visit and Liberty's welcome shed light on the flexibility of political platforms and ideologies, challenging the linear conception of how we dichotomize liberals and conservatives based on faith. Liberty student Erin Kotlan recently published an essay in The Atlantic that eloquently addresses the reconciliation of her faith with her support for Sanders.
Jesus chose to continually take people situated on the outside of society and bring them into community with him. ... For me, applying these truths to my political life puts me somewhere in between the two political parties. There is not a candidate for the upcoming election with whom I fully agree; but the majority of Sanders's political ideas seem to fit well with my faith. According to his campaign site, Sanders's political focus is on issues such as strengthening the middle class, racial justice, women's rights, and a better immigration policy. These types of policies help more people gain equal access to political, economic, and social rights.