Why Bernie Sanders’ Speech at Liberty University Matters

Preface: This does not constitute an endorsement for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. While I like a lot of what he’s saying, I’m as yet undeclared.

On September 14, Bernie Sanders, the unabashedly liberal populist candidate for President, went to Liberty University, a bastion of conservative Christian thinking and teaching, to give a speech. One would think at first blush that there wasn’t much common ground, given his differing views on abortion, gay rights, and the role of government than most of the attendees. However, this speech is significant for a few reasons.

Sanders opens with stating what he believes that is different. He’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and doesn’t try to dissemble or make that palatable. He then follows with:

I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.

The Fox News climate (which birthed the less blatantly partisan but still strident MSNBC response) leads to a framework where those who disagree with us are at best, deluded idiots, and at worst, enemies trying to destroy “our” America. For us to move forward, we’re going to have to acknowledge that people who disagree with us have something valuable to say.

As a liberal minded person, I enjoy how Sanders then unpacks the hypocrisy of the self-serving theology that the Republican party has taught. I want the government out of my decisions (unless it’s who I partner with or whether I have a child). I care about the rights of the unborn (but am indifferent their needs when they become children). I should be able to acquire as much wealth as I want without being taxed, and it’s your own fault if you can’t do the same, because you didn’t work hard enough or pray hard enough. Your mistakes should be punished to the fullest extent of the law; there is no mercy for the criminal.

In a gentle, non-accusing way, Sanders walks through how injustice permeates our country, largely due to the adoption of conservative ideology. He even asks at one point, encouraging the listeners to check their moral compass rather than their talking points, “You have to think about it and you have to feel it in your guts. Are you content?” He then reclaims the language of morality and family values that the Republican party has been so successful at appropriating and redirects it toward wealth inequality, health care costs and challenges, and excessive imprisonment.

So this is all well and good, but why does it matter? First, it’s critical that politicians (and their supporters) not forget that most passionate people believe they’re really pushing for what’s best for the most people. You can be misguided or base your position on an invalid premise, but that’s not the same as being willfully ignorant and hateful. We have to make arguments with people that we don’t agree with and meet each other on common ground. This means that both that I have to engage and consider conservative language and that conservatives arguing with me have to think about and respect my framing.

Second, the conversation Sanders is trying to have outlines the true complexity of the Christian message. Jesus spoke a lot about wealth inequality and caring for those who cannot care for themselves. He also said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. I find that the Christians that are seeking hardest to meet and follow Jesus don’t fall neatly into conservative and liberal buckets. They mourn the loss of unborn life but work to create a world where abortion never needs to be the best available choice, and they care about children after they’re born. They don’t see a provision in the Bible for a spiritual marital covenant between gay people but don’t see being homosexual as inherently wrong either. Since these Christians know rules don’t save people and government marriage is a contract, not a covenant, they see no need to prevent governments from declaring people married. They personally give generously of time and money to help those that are struggling, whether or not they are in favor of higher taxation to help facilitate that.

For me, I think if you find Jesus easy to follow and everything makes perfect sense, you’ve missed something important. The political and theological intertwining that has taken place among Republicans leaves many of them far too certain, unable to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul encouraged Christians to do, but expecting and insisting upon a “good life” by standards of the flesh, which involves pleasure, comfort, and self-serving rather than sacrifice for others and altruism.

If you believe in conservative politics and conservative Christian theology, I encourage you to look at the world, unfiltered. Look at inequality, injustice. For a moment, stop justifying and determining who deserves what for a moment, remembering what Jesus was willing to do for the utterly undeserving. Remember how you said you wanted to be more like Jesus. Then think about it, feel it in your guts. Are you still content?

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