Why Bernie Sanders spoke at conservative Liberty University

Bernie Sanders on Monday became the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to make a stop at Liberty University’s weekly convocations.

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Liberty students applaud during a speech by Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

Bernie Sanders, who’s been electrifying liberal Democrats on the presidential campaign trail, spoke Monday morning in a decidedly unlikely setting: Liberty University, a longtime political bastion for conservative Evangelicals. But even at this conservative stronghold, there are signs of some shifts in how young Evangelicals are viewing hot-button issues.

True, the audience for Senator Sanders’s speech erupted in cheers when, afterward, a college official promoted an antiabortion stance. But this is also a student body that appears to have diversified somewhat in recent years, with some students reportedly supporting causes that aren’t traditionally associated with Republicans.

Sanders’s courting of young and more liberal-minded Evangelicals is not likely to change the race to any significant degree; their numbers just aren’t big enough. But his presence at Liberty shines a light on an evolving voting bloc that is perhaps more open to his message of income inequality and social justice than in the past.

“The evangelical coalition is indeed changing,” says Amy Black, a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., via e-mail. “Younger evangelicals are interested in a wider range of issues than their elders, and they are not in lockstep with the Republican party. Candidates like Sanders can and should find ways to appeal to them on shared issues of concern.”

Liberty University, located in Lynchburg, Va., was founded in 1971 by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell. It is one of the most conservative Evangelical schools in the United States and has been a frequent stop for many Republican candidates. In 2009, after complaints from trustees, parents, and donors, the university derecognized its campus Democratic club, saying the national party’s platform went against the school’s moral principles.

Against this backdrop, Sanders – a liberal Jewish politician who is not “particularly religious” – became the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to make a stop at the school’s weekly convocations. Not only that, but he made the appearance on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the Jewish religious calendar.

A small number of boisterous Sanders supporters were allowed to attend his speech. Still, the audience's reactions were mostly tepid, if polite. From the outset, Sanders made clear his full support for abortion and gay rights, culture war issues that have defined much of the political agenda for Evangelicals for the past few decades.

“I came here today because 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,” the senator told a capacity crowd of nearly 12,000. “It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you.”

Yet at Liberty, observers say, the politics of the past are simmering with change. Kevin Roose, a writer who spent a semester at the university, said he had expected to find “a campus full of ballot-punching Republicans.”

“I found those, but I also met Christian feminists, Christian civil libertarians, Christians opposed to the war in Iraq, Christian gay-rights activists, and other Liberty students who challenged the norms of their parents' generation,” he wrote in a 2011 Huffington Post piece, after the school once again revoked recognition of a Democrats club.

Three out of 4 Evangelicals will still probably vote Republican next November, Professor Black notes. But “wise candidates will look at those numbers and see that a not insignificant portion of the evangelical vote is up for grabs, and they will seek ways to reach out to these voters.”

At Liberty on Monday, Sanders invoked the Bible and the nation’s Judeo-Christian moral traditions while focusing on the economic message that has galvanized so many Democrats.

“Are you content – do you think it’s moral that 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty?” he asked the Liberty crowd. “Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African-American children are living in poverty?”

“In my view, there is no justice, and morality suffers, when in our wealthy country, millions of children go to bed hungry,” he continued. “That is no morality, and that is not, in my view, what America should be about.”

But the crowd reacted most strongly after Sanders’s speech, when David Nasser, Liberty’s senior vice president for spiritual development, asked the senator to reconcile his concern for children living in poverty with protecting “the child in the womb.” Students and others in the audience responded with a standing ovation.

“It is important to note that Evangelical Millennials are more progressive than older cohorts on some issues, such as the environment and LGBT rights,” says Black via e-mail. “But they are more conservative on the abortion issue. Younger evangelicals are even more pro-life than older evangelicals. Democrats who want to reach out to this group of voters need to be careful not to alienate them.”

According to a YouGov/CBS News poll released on Sunday, Sanders has vaulted ahead of Hillary Clinton, polling 43 percent of likely primary voters in Iowa to Mrs. Clinton’s 33 percent, and 52 percent of New Hampshire primary voters to Clinton’s 30 percent.

Sanders closed his speech with the economic message that has become the focus of his campaign.

“Some of you will conclude, that if we are honest in striving to be a moral and just society, it is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people, and when necessary, take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed, in my view, is doing this country enormous harm.”

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