Bernie Sanders spoke at Jerry Falwell’s college – here’s the reaction he got

September 18, 2015
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Bernie Sanders found a little support even in a bastion of conservatism. ALAN CHIN

Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke Monday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the conservative Christian campus founded by Jerry Falwell and now headed by his son Jerry Falwell Jr. Ten thousand students filled the arena, because their attendance is essentially mandatory for all university convocations twice a week — they are allowed one absence each semester only — and their applause was largely polite rather than passionate.

Tucked into the hills and river valleys of southern Virginia, Liberty University has a bucolic setting in early autumn. And for a reporter from New York, the school is an exotic scene: students with eyes closed in rapturous prayer singing along to the Christian rock band that opened for the Democratic presidential candidate; students that answer every question with a “sir” at the end; many students wearing suits and dresses rather than jeans.

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Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks at conservative Christian Liberty University, to 10,000 students. ALAN CHIN

Sanders modified his stump speech with quotations from the Bible cited by chapter and verse — Matthew 7:12, “do to others what you would have them do to you” and the more obscure Amos 5:24, “let justice roll like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream” — but otherwise stuck to his core issues of fighting economic inequality after bluntly acknowledging his pro-choice and pro-gay marriage positions.

But what was striking wasn’t the majority of students who lacked enthusiasm for this most liberal candidate in the presidential race, but the few among them who came wearing Bernie T-shirts and brandishing handmade signs. For Liberty University, like most schools, is composed of a self-selected student body and faculty. It’s unlikely that many high school seniors who consider themselves liberal or leftist would apply.

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Not all were enthused. ALAN CHIN

Sarah Payne, class of 2011, said, “I didn’t think it was acceptable to be very open on campus if you were pro-choice or pro-gay marriage. People would be shocked. There’s lots of pressure to conform.”

Bethany Walker, who graduated in 2007 and has stayed in Lynchburg working for a non-profit, said, “I came here when I was 18. I was still figuring things out – I came from a very conservative family — but as I got older, and I started working in mental health, I realized that what conservatives are asking people to do is impossible. We’re a very small minority, but there is a place for progressive liberal ideology in faith-based communities.”

Bethany Dupree, who finished a masters in professional counseling at Liberty earlier this year, said, “It’s difficult to go through the program not agreeing; they are definitely Biblical, but I’m more scientifically based. It made me think more deeply. Bernie being here will pave the way to being more open minded.”

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ALAN CHIN

Ideally, college is supposed to be a time to challenge conventional wisdom and interrogate previously held beliefs as well as to acquire knowledge and skills. At a school like Liberty, that means that the culture wars take center stage at the intersection of education and identity.

But there was also Evan Powell, a 19-year old sophomore who waved a cardboard sign that read “(heart) Bernie From Evan” and explained his incongruity simply. “I lived in Europe for a while” and “I got a scholarship.”

Indeed, Liberty University has expanded tremendously in the last decade, with assets worth over $1 billion. With the cash to endow scholarships, build modern facilities and increase enrollment, the student body is inevitably becoming more diverse.

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ALAN CHIN

Sanders was astute in centering his speech on the potential common ground that he might have with a Christian audience, namely, combating economic inequality and racism. Caleb Taylor, a senior majoring in youth ministry, said, “I don’t agree with him on abortion. A fetus inside the womb has a voice. But I do agree that it’s immoral that we have tax cuts for the 1 percent. The middle class is shrinking, non-existent. And it’s self-centered and arrogant to only focus on abortion and gay rights.”

It would be hard to believe that Bernie Sanders won many votes after his speech, but his very appearance seems to have made a difference. It legitimized the more liberal or progressive minority on campus — certainly to themselves and possibly to the University at large. It was a catalyst to come out into the open. Dylan Childers, a political science major with a “Bernie 2016” sign, said, “Over 90 percent right-wing here, but they are more open to opinions than you imagine. “

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Sanders at a rally at the Prince William County Fairgrounds in Virginia. ALAN CHIN

Later that night, Sanders returned to more familiar ground, speaking for an hour to a rally of 8,000 people at the Prince William County Fairgrounds in Manassas. Reflecting the increasing diversity of the Washington suburbs, the crowd ranged from tattooed and pierced hipsters to soccer moms and dads to African-American workers. Sanders knew that Liberty University was going to be a tough house; he prepared his text ahead of time and stuck to it. In Manassas he reverted to the extended version of his speech that he knows from memory.

The sections on racial justice, added after the brouhahas earlier this summer over whether he had paid the issue enough attention, inspired the spontaneous chanting of “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” from the audience in support.

Afterward, the senator spent 25 minutes shaking hands and having his photograph taken. Not something that happened at Liberty U.

Bernie Sanders received a lot of admiration for going to Liberty University, and the school a lot of credit for inviting him. It’s reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s remarks in Des Moines, Iowa, also on Monday, when he said, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them.”

14 comments

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That bunch at Liberty is my bunch! but I thoroughly appreciate Bernie.

Posted by dask62 | Report as abusive

You don’t always have to ‘win’ someone over completely. Sometimes just reaching out and pointing to areas where you do have common ground with people is a good start. Of course there are those who are best served by having people focus on wedge issues, those that benefit from keeping people divided.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

Excellent article. Informative, balanced, and very interesting. And the photos were perfect. I feel like I was there, briefly. And this was indeed an exceptionally interesting event, so getting the report “right” mattered. Thanks!

Posted by TomCloyd | Report as abusive

>> “…they are more open to opinions than you imagine. “

Well, we can be certain they’re not at any IV League school, or the seas of political correctness, marxist indoctrination and enforced monolithic thought otherwise known as the American state university system.

Posted by MichaelHiteshew | Report as abusive

Props to reaching out and new dialogue. The students were probably not so into him. And he probably did not go there thinking he was going to win new people. But any candidate who reaches beyond their own base and comfort zone, and remembers to get along with the half of America that hates them…. well maybe you can make from friends along the way. Hope to see more of this stuff. Maybe Huckabee at UC Berkeley? If Berkeley has the nutz any more for wild discordant stuff.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Shocking – Bernie got press coverage?!?

Posted by BakoD | Report as abusive

We would be a powerful force if could set aside our differences and work together on thing we can agree on.

Posted by bKiku | Report as abusive

Kudos to Sanders for making the effort but he should not have gone to biblical verse to make his case, which I find a bit patronizing. The argument for greater equality and simple fairness should be made as a civic argument, that we all share citizenship as Americans and we all have the same basic needs – education, medical care, freedom. One doesn’t need to invoke religious authority to make the case. After all, this isn’t Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately the kids at Liberty are subject to endless indoctrination by carefully selected and screened professors. To call this place a university is a stretch. The Party line rules all.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

It looks like he’s speaking to some sort of brainwashed cult. Oh wait, he is!

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

Political dialogue is a must! I am as liberal as they come, so much so that to me Sanders is a centrist, still I feel no need to bash others who are not. We must compare ideas and learn to listen to one another. I do not want Trump as president, but even Trump has something to show us once in a while.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

I watched and listened to the speech and your
account of the audience reaction does not match
what I heard. The audience reaction was
surprisingly enthusiastic and loud, especially
when he spoke about justice and income
inequality. There was not just polite applause,
but quite a bit of cheering.

Posted by Mikelo | Report as abusive

looks like a prayer meeting …many young folk are desperately seeking a hero to replace their parents during this youthful period, Bernie sort of fits the grandpa image.

Posted by wondering_too | Report as abusive

It wasn’t a he’re what I’m going to give you and you owes me crowd that he was addressing. His whole platform is what can the government do for you and risks 18 trillion dollars of debt for the US in 10 years. But he not through yet, more to come. The man is just another liberal fool making promises he can’t keep.

Posted by Fixento | Report as abusive

It wasn’t a he’re what I’m going to give you and you owes me crowd that he was addressing. His whole platform is what can the government do for you and risks 18 trillion dollars of debt for the US in 10 years. But he not through yet, more to come. The man is just another liberal fool making promises he can’t keep.

Posted by Fixento | Report as abusive