There was tension in the air when Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders walked onstage Monday morning at Liberty University, a college in Lynchburg, Virginia. The situation seemed ripe for conflict: Liberty is a deeply conservative Christian school with a long history of championing right-wing religious leaders and Republican candidates. Sanders is a Jewish man and self-proclaimed democratic socialist who has repeatedly distanced himself from organized religion, describing himself as “not particularly religious.”
Yet when the 74-year-old senator took to the podium to address several thousand Liberty students, he launched into a speech that focused not on these clear differences, but on shared values. In what amounted to a nuanced articulation of religion’s role in American society, the bespectacled Sanders voiced a surprisingly deep appreciation for the larger moral goals of faith — even the school’s famously conservative brand of Christianity.
“You are a school which … tries to understand the meaning of morality,” Sanders said. “You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings. And I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.”
I am far from being a perfect human being — but I am motivated by a vision which manifests in all great religions.
Sanders, who turned heads by accepting Liberty’s invitation to be a convocation speaker in August, appeared to treat the speaking engagement as an opportunity to locate points of connection with his audience. While he didn’t hide his progressive views on abortion, Sanders — who worked with faith leaders during the Civil Rights movement — repeatedly pointed to famous passages of the Bible to frame larger policy issues.
“I am far from being a perfect human being — but I am motivated by a vision which manifests in all great religions,” he said. “And that vision is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12: ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. That is the golden rule … It is not very complicated.”
The line drew applause, although reports from those in attendance suggest overall student reaction to the speech was mixed. Still, attendees perked up when Sanders discussed the ills of income inequality, which included him quoting Pope Francis — the wildly popular pontiff who the senator has lauded as “incredibly smart and brave.” Sanders read from the pontiff’s Evangelii Gaudium, the 2013 apostolic exhortation on economics that was well-received among liberals for its left-leaning treatment of financial matters.
“I am not a theologian, an expert on the Bible, nor am I a Catholic,” Sanders, whose wife was raised Catholic, said. “But I agree with Pope Francis … when he says ‘the current financial crisis originated in a profound human crisis. The denial of the primacy of the human person. We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the ideology of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.’”
I am not a theologian, an expert on the Bible, nor am I a Catholic…But I agree with Pope Francis.
“[We live in] a nation and a world that worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money and great wealth,” Sanders added, before sliding in a careful reference to Matthew 6:24: “Money and wealth should serve the people. The people should not have to serve money and wealth.”
Sanders’ praise for Francis hinted at both a willingness to work with ideological opposites as well as a subtle nod to the growing influence of progressive people of faith. Religious progressives — who often discuss their faith in ways similar to Sanders — are a rapidly expanding portion of the population: A 2013 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that left-leading faithful will soon outnumber religious conservatives, and a 2015 PRRI survey reported that most American religious groups are now supportive of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, U.S. Catholics — newly energized by the compassionate teachings of Pope Francis — are now more progressive than average Americans on most issues.
But despite their size, religious progressives often struggle to muster the same kind of political power wielded by the Religious Right — and many left-wing faithful have actively resisted efforts to do so. As the percentage of “religiously unaffiliated” grows, liberal worshippers are often wary of articulating their faith in progressive settings, worried they could offend atheists or those harmed by religious institutions.
Sanders seemed to reject these political and cultural divisions on Monday, however. Standing before a crowd that would almost assuredly vote against him were he ever to win the Democratic nomination, he outlined a vision for the country where people from different religious backgrounds (or possibly no religious background) can still work together to achieve common goals — even if he never becomes president.
“I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues you feel very strongly about. We disagree on these issues,” Sanders said. “But let me suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and the entire world that maybe, just maybe we do not disagree on. And maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve them.”