On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sought to make his brand of democratic socialism palatable to an audience of conservative Christians.
In a stirring, eloquent stump speech that touched on religion, health care, education, and income disparity, Sanders connected his progressive agenda to tackle economic inequality with an ethical obligation that had a firmly religious basis. Before an unlikely crowd, in an address that sometimes resembled a lecture, sometimes a sermon, he bridged abstract values of morality and justice with concrete policy proposals. His goal, he said, was to “find common ground.”
The location was an incongruous one for Sanders’ full-throated liberal oratory: Liberty University, the Baptist school founded by Jerry Falwell (Sanders was given a warm introduction by Falwell’s son) — the very same venue where five months previous, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) launched his presidential run on a series of promises to repeal Obamacare, gut Planned Parenthood, and roll back progress on marriage equality. In other words, the antitheses of virtually every one of Sanders’ points.
Sanders made no secret of where he stood on social issues, the items on which he was most likely to diverge from the popular opinion in the room. He affirmed his support for same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to a legal abortion. (Throughout the speech Sanders received scattered applause, punctuated by ardent cheers from small but vocal pockets of the crowd.) But the senator from Vermont then suggested that, among those who hold opposing views, there was a valuable opportunity “to reach out of our zone of comfort,” and to have “civil discourse.”
“It is very easy for those in politics to talk to those who agree with us. I do that every day. It is harder, but not less important, to try to communicate with those who do not agree with us,” Sanders said in his prepared remarks.
He hastened to stake out common ground in the question of how best to lead a “moral life” — an inquiry that he argued was both deeply theological and inescapably political, one that he said both the audience and he could agree was vital. He said he was motivated by a vision of morality shared by all religions, namely, the Golden Rule as articulated in the Book of Matthew: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the Law and the prophets,” which he quoted.
“Let me be very frank. I understand that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are very important to you and that 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. And maybe, just maybe, we can work together in trying to resolve them,” he said.
His speech touched on Americans who became sick and died because of a lack of health insurance, mothers separated from their weeks-old children because they did not have paid leave, rampant youth unemployment and mass incarceration, particularly among people of color. Amid the explosion in wealth for millionaires and billionaires, he said, children still lived in poverty. That all of this could occur in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, was tantamount to a moral crime, he argued.
“There is no justice when so few have so much,” he said. “In your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that and the justice of that.”
He asked the crowd to interrogate the meaning of the words “family values,” which are commonly invoked by conservatives in anti-abortion or anti-gay-marriage screeds.
“All of us believe in ‘family values,'” Sanders said. “Is it a family value that the United States is the only major country on Earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave?” He renewed his calls for universal health care, tuition-free education, and paid leave for new parents and sick employees. These issues, he said, were inseparable from the health and well-being of the family — and so necessarily must be considered “family values.”
In a Q&A session moderated by David Nasser, Liberty University’s Senior Vice President of Spiritual Development, Sanders took three pre-screened questions from the student body.
In a response to the first one — on the subject of race — Sanders conceded that while the country had been “created […] on racist principles,” it had made many positive strides, but cautioned the audience that they should be aware “to what degree racism is alive in this country.” He cited the massacre of a Bible study group at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the too-common occurrence of unarmed men of color being shot by police. He said that institutional racism was a very real scourge and that police officers who committed crimes should be brought to justice, but was careful to note that the vast majority of men and women who serve in law enforcement were honest.
When Nasser posed a question about abortion, he framed it by invoking Sanders’ own stated mission to protect society’s most vulnerable, saying that many conservatives believed unborn children fell within that category. The question got perhaps the loudest applause in the event.
Sanders responded by pointing to the many instances in budget appropriations when Republicans had stripped funding from education and social programs — implicitly demanding that conservatives extend their moral crusade to protect unborn children to include born ones as well.
Finally, Nasser offered a prayer expressing both gratitude for Sanders’ visit and a desire for the senator to know that “he has made friends today.”
File photo: yashmori via Flickr