LYNCHBURG, Virginia – The Vermont democratic socialist and the conservative Southern evangelical university were both on their best behavior Monday as worlds collided and both sides attempted to find common ground.
While Sen. Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, likely picked up few supporters with his speech to thousands of students at Liberty University here, he received a courteous welcome and helped all parties demonstrate their willingness to respect the other side.
Sanders has developed a reputation as a lefty bomb-thrower as he campaigns. But on Monday, he became the first Democratic presidential candidate anyone could remember to accept an invitation to speak at Liberty, the world’s largest evangelical university. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz announced his 2016 presidential campaign at the university in March.
“I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse,” Sanders said. “It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you … It is is harder, but not less important, to try to communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
That sentiment was greeted enthusiastically by the nearly 12,000 students who filled the university’s basketball arena as part its mandatory twice-a-week convocation programs.
But nothing else Sanders said was received nearly as warmly. While he encountered no overt hostility, the senator looked out at sea of mostly stone faces as he urged the students to see things his way on economic inequality.
Beyond a vocal section of visiting Sanders supporters near the stage, the audience offered Sanders’ policy ideas polite applause when appropriate, and the occasional cheer, but mostly sat quietly.
The senator, known for giving roughly the same stump speech for 30 years, made an effort to tailor his message. Sanders wrote the speech himself, longhand on a yellow legal pad, according to an aide, and worked to find common starting points.
Sanders quoted scripture chapter and verse, and framed his message in the biblical themes of morality and justice.
“When we talk about morality, we are talking about all of God’s children,” he said. “In my view, there is no justice when we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time the United States of America has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth.”
And the university did its best to welcome Sanders. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president and the son of the school’s founder, presented Sanders with a personalized football jersey and the students were respectful throughout.
But the gap between their worlds was clear from the first moment, when Sanders stood patiently on stage as a Christian rock band played, to the last, when Sanders was asked to bow his head in prayer.
Sanders himself never spoke of his personal faith. He came closest stating his belief in “The Golden Rule,” pointing to Matthew 7:12 and saying it’s an idea found in every major religion.
But the longest, loudest applause of the morning came when Sanders was asked about abortion. The deafening applause as thousands rose to their feet underscored the tepidness of the reaction to Sanders’ economic policy points. “You can tell this is what they want you to be asked about,” said Senior Vice President David Nasser, who served as emcee for the program.
Sanders, acknowledging the obvious tension, voiced his support for abortion rights and said he doesn’t believe the government should force such a personal decision.
Though they demonstrated their disagreements, Liberty students – to a person – said they were extremely grateful that Sanders came and appreciated the opportunity to hear a viewpoint challenged their own.
“Kuddos for him for saying it,” freshman Thomas Lisa said of his abortion answer. “It wasn’t easy, I know, talking about gay marriage and abortion to a school like this.”
Junior Chris Hill, who sat in the front row, said his friends on campus were very curious to hear Sanders speak. “We’ve wanted a liberal to come here. We’ve invited Hillary Clinton, we’ve invited Barack Obama, we’ve invited Martin O’Malley. Bernie is the only one to be here,” he said.
Few said their minds were changed. “I don’t think he picked up too many votes,” said sophomore Logan Price.
But for the handful of students at Liberty who don’t fit in with the stridently conservative culture on campus, Sanders’ speech was like a breath of fresh air.
“I’m a black liberal at Liberty University, so I’m in a double minority,” said Joshua McMillion. “This was the best convocation I’ve ever experienced.”