Self-declared socialist and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders took his message to thousands of conservative college students, imploring them "try to work together" to resolve some of the country’s problems.
Sen. Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, spoke Monday to a crowd of 10,000 at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Va. The speech ended a weekend-long campaign swing through the South for Sanders, where he has been trying to cement support for his surging presidential run.
Despite the deep-red locale, Sanders did not stray from the messages that have seen him rise from an obscure far-left candidate to the top of the polls among Democratic voters. Sanders opened his speech by acknowledging that his opinions on some social issues differed drastically from those shared by many students at the university, including his support for same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to have an abortion.
"We disagree on those issues. I get that," he said. "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."
While he might have been tempted to drew a parallel with Daniel in the lion's den, Sanders instead tapped Bible passages likely familiar to his audience, including Amos 5:24 ("Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.") and Matthew 7:12, known as the Golden Rule: "Do unto others what you would have them do to you."
He used the Matt. 7 quote to pivot to the “common ground” which Sanders said he could find with the young, conservative audience. Specifically, he focused on the "massive injustice" of economic inequality and childhood poverty.
"You have got to think about the morality of that, the justice of that, and whether or not that is what we want to see in our country," he said.
He noted that 20 percent of all children – and 40 percent of African-American children – now live in poverty.
"I want to go into your hearts," he said. "How can we talk about morality, about justice, when we turn our backs on the children of our country?"
The crowd was an uncomfortable mix of Liberty students and a small contingent of Sanders supports whom the university allowed to attend. For most of the speech the students sat politely silent with their arms folded. By the end of his appearance the largest cheer had been for Liberty Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser, who noted during a question-and-answer session after Sanders’ speech that many students felt "children in the womb need our protection."
But Sanders’ greatest victory may have been getting into the cavernous Vines Center at all, which a few months ago was where Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas chose to launch his presidential campaign.
"It’s easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you," Sanders said. "It is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue."
The sentiment comes at a time where America is perhaps more politically divided than it has ever been. Earlier this year the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 10,000 adults and found that "Republicans and Democrats are further apart than at any point in recent history."
"Political polarization is the defining feature of early 21st century American politics," Pew added.
Sanders added that it is "vitally important that those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse."
The message may have resonated with some Liberty students – though that doesn’t mean Sanders has their vote.
Danielle Eschedor, a 19-year-old sophomore from Wellington, Ohio, said she was glad Sanders spoke at the school but said "the responsibility falls on the church" to address many of the nation’s social problems.
Nathan White, a junior from Houston, said he opposed the senator’s positions on gay marriage and abortion.
"I'm glad they invited him," he said, "but I wouldn’t vote for him."
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.