Lynchburg—These days they kill you with kindness in the South. So even though, as the campus band launched into a rousing cover of the Christian rock anthem “Christ Is Enough,” and the crowd in the 10,000-seat Vines Arena rose to its feet—with many of them joining in singing “scorned by the ones He came to save”—Bernie Sanders might well have thought this was an odd way for him to be celebrating Rosh Hashanah.
Nevertheless, the audience at Liberty University was every bit as polite, respectful, and welcoming as president Jerry Falwell Jr. had asked them to be.
Sanders made no effort to paper over the political divide between his vision of a just society and the values inculcated by a university that describes itself as “a Christian academic university” in the evangelical tradition. “I believe in a woman’s right to control her own body,” he began. “I believe in gay rights, and gay marriage.” The small but spirited contingent of Sanders supporters, some of whom had driven from Tennessee and West Virginia to be there, erupted in cheers. Sanders 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 the world and that maybe, just maybe, we don’t disagree on them.”
His voice hoarse but powerful, Sanders preached a sermon on the theme of rampant injustice, citing Matthew 7:12 (the Golden Rule) and Amos 5:24 (“let justice roll down like waters”). But if the texts were familiar, the lessons were not. The Vermonter’s declaration that any country that cared about all its children would guarantee them healthcare as a human right got just scattered applause. A lengthy quotation from Pope Francis, climaxing in the injunction that “money has to serve, not to rule,” got even less. (Maybe nobody told the students that for a Baptist preacher, Jerry Falwell Sr. always had a soft spot for Rome.)
But if his attacks on corporate greed, inequality, and the excessive power of the 1 percent mostly fell on stony soil—afterward a young woman told me “those people had to work hard to make that money” and that poor people “were part of God’s plan”—Sanders did find some common ground with his audience. When he said that racism was part of America’s past, but that today racism, racial discrimination, and racist attacks on foreigners or immigrants were “completely unacceptable in America,” the audience cheered.
“He has been sold the wrong way on the racism issue,” Susan Mead, a Sanders supporter from Lexington, Virginia, said afterward. “He really connected on that here—and I didn’t expect that at all.”
Tim Johnson, a Liberty student, said “On the economy part I totally agree. I don’t think it’s right the way the rich are hoarding.” Describing himself as a social conservative, Johnson said he was unlikely to vote for Sanders. “But if it came down to him or Donald Trump, I’d go for Sanders.”
Mostly though, the students sat in polite silence, and for all their singing and hand-clapping, I was beginning to think this was a politically disconnected audience. Until David Nasser, the Iranian-born convert to charismatic Christianity who became Liberty’s resident pastor last year, asked Sanders how he reconciled his concern for the children in poverty with his attitude to “children in the womb, who need our protection even more.” The entire arena sprang to its feet, and the rafters rang with cheers. But Sanders stood his ground, even adding that he never understood why conservatives, who were so eager to restrict big government in so many areas, were happy to let the government tell women how to make what should be a personal decision.
“For some people here, ending abortion is their hill to die on,” Erin Kotlan, a junior English major from Houston, told me. “I don’t feel that way, but I can understand why they do.”
Erin, who recently outed herself as a Bernie supporter in a blog post on TheAtlantic.com, said Sanders had done far better than she’d hoped. “A lot of Liberty students think that being conservative religiously means you have to be conservative politically, because that’s how Jerry Falwell was.” Describing herself as part of a small group of students who don’t fit that mold, Kotlan said, “I loved the way he came from the angle of seeking common ground.”
“What I like about Bernie,” said Brendan Fern, another Liberty undergrad, “is that he acknowledged our differences but said we can still have a common discourse.” Fern, who asked if he could pray for me before we parted, said he wasn’t sure whom he would vote for—but that it probably wouldn’t be Sanders, as he, too, considered himself quite conservative.
Indeed, it’s unlikely that Sanders won many converts in Lynchburg. But in a place and time where he had few friends, he also seemed to have made few enemies. Perhaps, then, this was less a version of Daniel in the lion’s den, and more a case of the lion that didn’t roar.