LYNCHBURG, Virginia – A Southern evangelical university is an unlikely place for a socialist-leaning Jew from Brooklyn to spend his Rosh Hashanah, and yet that’s how Sen. Bernie Sanders is passing his high holiday Monday, giving a speech to Liberty University here.
It’s equally unlikely that a school whose own version of the 10 Commandments includes “a strong commitment to political conservatism [and] total rejection of socialism” would not only invite the Vermont “democratic-soclaist” to come speak, but require its students to attend.
And yet, since Sanders is speaking as part of the school’s twice-weekly convocation program, attendance is mandatory (punishable by a small fine) for all students who live on campus.
For Sanders, the appearance is part of the presidential candidate’s 50-state strategy and conviction that he can win over supporters in almost any crowd. As Congress’ longest serving independent, he has traveled places Democrats typically avoid. Aides say he can surpass expectations by bringing a-typical voters to the polls and caucus-rooms.
Sanders has made several swings through the South, and Virginia is a delegate-rich state that holds is primary in March, a state that could decide the Democratic nomination if Sanders manages beat front-runner Hillary Clinton in one of the early contests.
For Liberty, the appearance is the product of an unexpected acceptance of a largely perfunctory invitation.
Founded by social conservative activist and televangelist Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, Liberty has 13,000 residential students who were until recently required to abide a by a strict code of conduct. With another 100,000 online, it’s the largest evangelical Christian college in the world and politically leans hard-right.
In addition to rejecting socialism, the school demands “firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise,” and “an absolute repudiation of ‘political correctness.’” Sen. Ted Cruz declared his presidential run here in the spring during another convocation.
But the school is also a non-profit organization, and thus officially non-partisan. Like many other non-profits, the school typically invites every presidential candidate of both parties to stay on the good side of the IRS and avoid the appearance of favoritism, explained spokesperson university Mitzi Bible.
That includes Clinton and other Democrats. But until now, a Democratic presidential candidate had never accepted.
Sanders is likely to steer clear of hot-button social issues like his support of funding for Planned Parenthood and instead focus on places where he thinks he can find common-ground with the students here.
Whether he wins any votes among the thousands expected, however, remains to be seen.