LYNCHBURG, Virginia — Bernie Sanders wants evangelicals to put their faith in him.
The Democratic presidential frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire (depending on which polls you look at) waltzed on stage at Liberty University this morning to try to sell the school’s conservative, evangelical student body on the faith-based case for fighting income inequality.
As students sang about Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection, the Jewish socialist from Vermont shuffled onstage clutching a manila folder.
Then Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. introduced Sanders and praised his time as mayor of Burlington for making the city “one of the most exciting, livable cities in the nation.” It was a far cry from Falwell’s introduction of Trump three years ago, when he praised the mogul for getting Obama to release his birth certificate. Falwell then gestured for Sanders to step up to the lectern and handed him a Liberty University jersey.
“He’s going to be a fan of the Liberty Flames,” Falwell said, as Sanders awkwardly held the jersey up to his chest.
The crowd whooped; then Sanders opened his mouth.
“Let me start off by acknowledging what I think all of you already know,” he said in his thick Brooklyn accident. “And that is, the views that many here at Liberty University have, and I, on a number of important issues, are very, very different.”
“I believe in women’s rights,” he said—interrupted by cheering from the Bernie supporters sitting in the front row next to the reporters’ area—“and the right of a woman to control her own body. I believe in gay rights”—more whooping. “Those are my views and it is no secret.”
“But I came here today that I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse,” he added as Falwell and other officials applauded.
Over the course of the rest of the speech, the candidate endeavored to do just that—to engage in civil discourse with a group of people who hold little more than antipathy for his preferred policy changes.
“I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues that you feel very strongly about,” he continued. “We disagree on those issues. I get that. But let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and in fact to the entire world that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on, and maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve them.”
Sanders then proceeded to lay out the concerns he felt the Liberty audience might have shared with him, focusing on poverty in the United States, child poverty, lack of health-care access and health care, and income inequality.
“I think that when we talk about morality, what we are talking about is all of God’s children—the poor, the wretched—they have a right to go to a doctor when they are sick,” he said.
Sanders concluded by calling on students to “take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed in my view is doing this country enormous harm.”
The audience was polite, receptive, and sometimes even a little pumped. When he finished speaking, two young bro-looking supporters rose, pumped their fists, and chanted, “Feel the Bern!”
Then the real discussion started. Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser came out and sat with the candidate for a quick Q&A session. Nasser started by pressing Sanders on race.
“If you were elected president, what would you do to bring healing and resolution to the issue of racism in our country?” he asked, reading a question from a student.
Sanders started by saying that America “in many ways, was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, but from way back—on racist principles. That’s a fact.”
He added that we’ve come a long way since then, that racism is still very much present in American society, and that police officers who break laws must be held accountable.
“It’s not a skin issue,” Nasser replied. “It’s a sin issue.”
The implication is that racial tension is due to sin, and that eliminating racial tension can’t truly happen until people accept Jesus into their hearts. Sanders didn’t explicitly agree or disagree.
“The answer is, obviously, we have got to change our hearts,” he said. “But everybody here should know—50, 60, 70 years ago in this country, we had segregated schools and segregated restaurants. And it took the Supreme Court, it took Martin Luther King Jr., it took millions of people to demand public policy which ended segregation.”
Change the law and hearts will follow.
The two also went back and forth over abortion and the Republicans’ budget. Everyone was nice. Frank, sometimes blunt, uninterested in compromise, but nice.
And here’s the thing: It was a pretty good show. While most of the American political conversation is dominated by platitudes, cheap shots, pre-fab talking points, and jokes about Donald Trump’s hair, Liberty actually let two people with very different views speak frankly about public policy. Watching it was sort of fun.
Students seemed to concur. Emily McGowan, who sported a Rand Paul T-shirt, said she would have loved to see Paul and Sanders spar.
“It’s like the clash of the ideologies, you know?” she said.
Joshua McMillion, a sophomore who liked Sanders even before he came to speak, said he was “just starstruck.”
“Best convocation ever,” he said.
Only a candidate with Sanders’s unimpeachably far-left credentials could have spoken at a university founded by the former head of the Moral Majority and still be taken seriously by his base.