Self-described socialist and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tried to find common ground Monday with students at a Virginia Christian university founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a venue known for promoting conservative social and economic principles and for drawing Republican presidential hopefuls as speakers.
But Sanders, more accustomed to speaking to progressive audiences and leftist groups, attempted reach across the culture-war divide in his speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, striking a note of moral indignation at the “massive injustice” of income and wealth inequality that he said ought to unite people across the political spectrum.
Sanders made clear in his speech that he supports abortion rights and gay marriage, drawing meager applause in the school’s 10,000-seat Vines Center. But Sanders seemed undeterred, arguing that the issue of economic justice should unite people of all faiths and that "maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve that."
"It would be hard to make the case that we are a just society or anything resembling a just society today," Sanders said. "In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality."
Sanders' appearance at Liberty, which bills itself as the world's largest Christian college, was the most prominent example yet of his attempts to appeal to people outside the traditional umbrella of the Democratic party and to expand his campaign's appeal. Sanders has ridden a waive of grassroots popularity and drawn massive audiences in his campaign to overtake Hillary Clinton for the Democratic party's presidential nomination.
Liberty University was founded in 1971 by far-right preacher Falwell, who rose to fame as the founder of the intensely conservative Christian political organization called the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, and who died in 2007. The college is a familiar stop for Republican presidential hopefuls seeking to connect with conservative evangelicals. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz launched his GOP presidential campaign there last March, and another Republican, Ben Carson, is scheduled to speak at a convocation at the school in November. It has hosted some Democrats over the years, but not nearly as many.
Sanders said in his speech at Liberty that he was "far from a perfect human being," but was motivated by the vision of the religious teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The senator was raised in a Jewish family and is non-observant, but his campaign said he planned to stop at a Rosh Hashanah gathering Monday at the home of Michael Gillette, Lynchburg's mayor.
Pointing to scripture, Sanders cited the "Golden Rule" of the biblical gospel of Matthew as a guiding principle to treat others as one would like to be treated. At another point, he told students the book of Amos said, "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream."
His pitch on economic injustice was met with scattered applause, while many students sat politely with their arms folded, declining to clap. During a question-and-answer session, the student body erupted when Liberty senior vice president David Nasser referred to Sanders’ stance favoring abortion rights, noting that many Liberty students believe "children in the womb need our protection."
Sanders acknowledged this was "an area where we disagree," and said abortion is a "painful and difficult decision" that should not be made by the government.
Many students said that they respected Sanders for speaking at the university, but that his views on social issues were a deal-breaker. Danielle Eschedor, a 19-year-old sophomore from Wellington, Ohio, said that the senator had a "good heart" and that she was glad Sanders spoke at the school. But she said "the responsibility falls on the church" to address many of the nation's social problems.
"I'm glad they invited him, but I wouldn't vote for him," said Nathan White, a junior from Houston. White said he opposed gay marriage and abortion rights, and described himself as a capitalist.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press