LYNCHBURG, VA.—Bernie Sanders, a Jewish but “not particularly religious” Democrat and avowed socialist, spent Rosh Hashanah at Liberty University, the birthplace of the Moral Majority and the largest evangelical Christian university in the world.
On Monday, a 10,000-person stadium was packed to the gills for a convocation ceremony. True, there were a number of journalists and Bernie Sanders supporters in the audience as well. But my eyes were on the thousands of students in the Vines Center—the theater to invited speakers and basketball games—surrounding me in a 360-view from the center stage. And they were all watching, waiting, and listening. They were also likely required to attend—almost all Christian universities require their students to attend chapel or convocation. Of course, not many Christian universities invite non-religious Democratic candidates to be a part of their religious ceremonies.
Liberty’s choice to do so, however, is less of a surprise than Sanders’ choice to accept. For one, Liberty is America’s largest university operating as a nonprofit. To keep its 501(c)(3) status, it must extend speaking invitations to Democratic candidates as well as Republican ones—invitations that are typically denied, and have been rejected by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. (The late Ted Kennedy, however, was a frequent guest.)
But the tax-exempt school has seen its fair share of challenges: religious watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed three separate complaints against Liberty University to the IRS between 2008–2010 and again in 2015 after Senator Ted Cruz spoke at their school. Complaints like these have paved the way for the dismantling of clubs like College Republicans and College Democrats—both were told to disband after being on campus for one semester.
The school’s current president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., has certainly grown his father’s creation in his 10 years at the helm—Liberty reported $1 billion in assets in 2012 and record enrollment numbers last year. “We’re not the Moral Majority anymore,” the younger Falwell told the Washington Post in 2013. “We’re not a church. Our mission is to educate.”
But, church or not, the service began as all convocation services begin: with praise and worship music. My fellow journalists seemed shocked as singers, guitarists, and keyboardists rolled on stage and everyone else around us stood and began to sing. Recalling my time as a student at Lee University, a Christian college in Tennessee, I stood instinctively to join them, and realized I was the only member of the press team to do so. I sat back down and fiddled with my phone, still singing the songs under my breath.
After the songs, Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser introduced Jerry Falwell, Jr. The audience cheered with cries of “JERRY” in a booming pitch. And Falwell cheerfully introduced Sanders and gifted him with a Liberty University jersey with his last name on it. I wondered if this would be a fluffy speech where Sanders avoided speaking about anything controversial and tried to talk about how wonderful it was to be here in order to appeal better to his audience. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Sanders started by talking about his beliefs in abortion and gay marriage, and admitted that he knew most of the people in this giant auditorium probably disagreed with him. And it’s true, they probably did. The crowd was gracious when they welcomed Sanders into their midst, and cheered for him. If there was booing, it wasn’t audible over the polite applause. A few of the students had T-shirts on that supported Bernie Sanders, but I also spied a few for Rand Paul as well.
“Too often in our country on both sides, there is too much shouting at each other, too much making fun of each other,” he said, to which one student responded with a hearty “Amen!”—the only one during the course of the speech. “It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you,” he said. “It is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate for those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
Other Democratic candidates are more than happy to dismiss the students at places like Liberty University as an impenetrable demographic and a complete waste of their time. If Sanders thinks he can try to get a voter or two out of this speech (and voter registration forms were available for students to fill out immediately after the event) it probably won’t make much of a difference in his campaign. But cultivating the evangelical right, even if it’s a slow, arduous process, is likely to bear fruit in the long run. I would know, because I experienced the same thing myself at my Christian college. The power and influence of someone challenging your worldview should not be underestimated.
When I attended the Lee University I considered myself a Republican-leaning-libertarian. Most of the people on campus were conservatives. I voted for McCain/Palin in my first presidential election in 2008. While working at the college newspaper, we tried to interview students on-camera to ask who they were voting for—only one person answered Barack Obama.
But it was during my time on this Christian campus that the seeds of the importance of social justice began to sprout. In my Christian Ethics class, we were required to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, about an undercover journalist who attempts to survive on minimum wage in low-paying jobs. For the purpose of the book, she worked as a waitress, as a maid, and as a retail worker and tried to keep afloat paying rent and other bills with her income.
Not only did Ehrenreich struggle to simply survive, but she also postulated that instead of the poor living off the generosity of government benefits and charities—as I was always led to believe growing up white, middle class, and Christian—it’s actually the middle and upper classes who live off the backs of the lower classes. In her book, Ehrenreich wrote: “They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.”
Being a smaller school, my college was never the place of choice for politicians from either side of the aisle. But some, like Shane Claiborne (a prominent figure in the New Monasticism movement), did make their way to Lee University to talk to us during our mandatory chapel services. His stories of homelessness in Philadelphia, Christians in Iraq, and time spent with Mother Teresa left an impact that I did not soon forget.
So for more than an hour, Bernie Sanders didn’t pander or censor himself or try to make his speech more palatable for his audience. He stuck to his opinions, but he did fervently argue in favor of social justice, hoping Liberty students would agree. He referenced Matthew 7:12 and Amos 5:24 and quoted the Pope. He relayed statistic after statistic of the grievous results of our pursuit of wealth and greed in this country, of the amount of money possessed by rich and how hard the rest of us have to work to get so little.
It would be easy for liberals and self-identified progressives to think social justice and racism aren’t concerns of the evangelical right, but that’s just not true. The principles of Jesus to clothe the poor and feed the hungry aren’t mere suggestions, and as Bible-believing Christians, evangelicals know this to be true. When their fundamentalist faith gets challenged by the incoming changes to our society, from the legalization of same-sex marriage to the prominence of transgender celebrities and outspoken feminists in mainstream culture, evangelicals will seek to make a positive impact, one way or another—at the risk of their voices being forgotten.
Bernie Sanders probably won’t be getting many new votes from his time at Liberty, certainly not enough votes from the rest of America to clinch the nomination away from Hillary Clinton. But, if the multiple discussions I overheard students having after the speech was over were any indication, Sanders’ speech made an impact, even if he didn’t change their minds. They were talking, even if they weren’t agreeing.
Change is slow and iterative. Moments like Bernie Sanders speaking at Liberty are going to matter in the long run if the direction of this country is going to head away from the benefit of the wealthy and more toward an inclusive, loving society where the poor don’t have to worry about their medical bills or where their next meals will come from.
Of the 10,000 students crammed into the auditorium Monday, one day, some of them will invariably find themselves unemployed and unable to pay their student loan debts after they get their degree—according to College Scorecard, 68% of Liberty students take out federal loans for tuition amounts that are higher than the national average. The amount of this debt averages out to be nearly $25,000, even with Liberty’s enticing and prominent financial aid program. It’s only slightly lower than the national average amount of student loan debt.
Other students will struggle with medical costs and health problems and look for solutions, having to turn to the government for benefits. Some of them will get pregnant, maybe unexpectedly or while unmarried, and turn to food stamps or WIC benefits. Some of them will be parents who will feel the pain of being ripped away from a new baby because they can’t afford to take unpaid parental leave. Some of them will come out of the closet after repressing their sexuality for years, and need to find a supportive and loving community. These are the ones who will remember the words of Sanders’ speech long after the media circus has died down.
The students at Liberty already have their convictions. Sanders has given them the knowledge and arguments to challenge their thinking. And later, just maybe, circumstance will lead them to greater amounts of empathy and understanding for the viewpoints of social justice—the agenda of Bernie Sanders is closest to the agenda of Jesus Christ than any other presidential candidate. The evangelical right could become a force to be reckoned with for more than just issues of gay marriage or abortion. Maybe socialist liberals have more in common with evangelical Christians than one might think. It’s easier to point to the marked differences between the two than to see how compatible the viewpoints really are. And so far, it seems like maybe Sen. Sanders is the only one to recognize it.
Jennifer C. Martin is a writer based in Richmond, VA. Her work has previously been featured on Gawker, UPROXX, xoJane, and Time, among others.