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Bernie Sanders Isn't Crazy to Court Evangelicals. But Here's Why It's a Tough Sell.


Bernie Sanders spoke on Monday at Liberty University’s convocation, a school-wide event the university describes as America’s “largest weekly gathering of Christian students.” Founded by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, the self-proclaimed largest Christian university in the world might seem like a curious campaign stop for Sanders, who is Jewish and describes himself "not particularly religious." But there is common ground between the democratic socialist senator and the famously conservative student body, namely on the issues of poverty and extreme inequality—though a post-speech question about abortion highlights just how difficult it will be for Sanders to win evangelical votes.

Sanders was upfront about the gap most would likely perceive between his politics and those of Liberty and its students. “I believe in women’s rights ... I believe in gay rights, and gay marriage,” Sanders offered, “Those are my views, and it’s no secret.” But he emphasized civil discourse, and the responsibility of both sides of the political spectrum to listen instead of shouting. It is important, Sanders added, “to try to communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue ... and to see where, if possible ... we can find common ground.” The remainder of his speech was spent searching for just such commonality between his policies, many of which fit into the tradition of democratic socialism, and the values of Christianity.

“I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions,” Sanders said, “and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12. ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the Law and the prophets.’” He continued, quoting Amos 5:24, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” He characterized justice as following the Golden Rule, and treating others “with respect, and with dignity,” which he translated in policy terms to: reducing income and wealth inequality, which limit the flourishing of so many Americans; reducing child poverty, which is higher in the United States than in almost any other developed nation; expanding healthcare access; and extending benevolent family policies that will allow parents—especially new moms—time to care for their children. In fact, much of Sanders’s speech focused on “family values,” especially the policies that keep families secure after the birth of a new child, and in times of illness and unemployment.

“We live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Sanders said, “but most Americans don’t know that. Because almost all of that wealth and income is going to the top one percent.” Sanders invited students to put extreme inequality, and “wealth beyond comprehension,” in the context of the Bible. “When we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice, we have to—in my view—understand that there is no justice when so few have so much, and so many have so little.” Sanders went on to say that,  “When we talk about morality, we are talking about all of God’s children—the poor, the wretched—they have a right to go to a doctor when they are sick.” To this, and to many of Sanders’ observations about the role of morality in his politics, the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

“I am not a theologian, I am not an expert on the Bible, nor am I a Catholic,” Sanders said near the end of his address, “but I agree with Pope Francis when he says, and I quote, the current financial crisis originated in a profound human crisis, the denial of the primacy of the human person.” He cited Francis’s remarks comparing modern materialism with the idolatry of the Biblical golden calf, a circumstance Francis called “the idolatry of money.” Sanders closed by condemning the worship of wealth over the love of “brothers and sisters, the poor and the sick.”

During a Q&A following his speech, no question received as vigorous a response as the one about abortion. In so many words, the students wondered how Sanders felt about protecting the unborn, given his emphasis on looking out for vulnerable members of society. Liberty's students launched into wild applause and cheering as soon as the question was asked, and were less enthusiastic (though respectful) during his answer. Sanders was even-handed, clear, and firm: He is a pro-choice politician, and he seemed aware that issue is likely to remain irreconcilable between himself and many Christian voters. For that reason, it seems unlikely that even such a strong address will swing evangelicals in Sanders' direction. But there is some reason to believe his economic policies might garner more interest among the Liberty-minded than one might assume.

Since the late 1970s, the default position of evangelicals in America has been alignment with the Republican Party, a relationship of pure design. Meanwhile, Christians disinterested in swearing allegiance to the GOP often propose the idea that Christianity is inherently apolitical, and that Christians should therefore keep either to themselves or their religion out of politics altogether. “If it is a politics,” Garry Wills wrote in The New York Times many years ago, “it cannot be Christian.” And yet Christians must be, in democratic nations at least, engaged political agents. And they must apply the only ethics that correspond to the only good they can rightly know to the dismal world of politics. (Which is, contra Wills, really no more dismal than the remainder of human affairs.)

But as previously strong relations between evangelicals and the GOP appear poised to fracture and circumstances grow too dire for Christians to leave the troubles of politics to their fellows, an option like the package of policies presented by Sanders seems prime for Christian support. Such support would fall in with a long history of Christian interest in policies that bolster equality and strengthen families, as well as a Christian tradition of critiquing the ravages of free market capitalism. Indeed, there is a certain stripe of family benefit that could potentially function as pro-life policy without involving the carceral system. Still, Sanders is entirely right to acknowledge that there will likely always be some departures between his political vision and that of the average evangelical, and his sincerity on that point should at least excuse him from charges of pandering. Instead of focusing on flattery, Sanders presents Christians with a political approach that takes a different route to achieving the things we value most, through policies that really work.