Throughout much of his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders has been speaking to friendly, liberal crowds. There's nothing unusual about that — it's the best way to win the Democratic primary, and it's certainly helped him get to the front of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But Sanders's theory of change demands more than that. He wants to bring about a "political revolution" in which he mobilizes the American public to back an explicit, full-on challenge to the power of billionaires and corporate interests. He believes his focus on economic and political inequality will appeal to both apathetic non-voters and traditionally Republican constituencies. Only with such broad support, he argues, does he have a shot at passing his agenda.
So on Monday, Sanders put that theory to the test, when he spoke at the convocation of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Liberty is the largest evangelical Christian university in the world, and known as a hotbed of conservative activism.
There, Sanders made the case that these religious and Republican Christians should look past their disagreements with him on abortion and same-sex marriage — and give his economic agenda a chance. Here was his pitch:
"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."
Sanders tried to win over evangelicals with a religious and moral case for fighting poverty and inequality
Most of the speech Sanders delivered was familiar — he cited his usual blizzard of statistics on economic inequality, as he's been doing on the campaign trail for months. But his framing was quite different. More explicitly than usual, Sanders argued that his economic agenda was the only truly moral one.
Indeed, he kept pressing the evangelical audience to put the Bible's teachings on poverty into action — and to reexamine their own political preconceptions. "I want you to go into your hearts," Sanders said. "Millions of people in this country are working long hours for abysmally low wages." He added, "You have got to think about the morality of that, the justice of that."
He went on:
"Are you content? Do you think it's moral that 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African-American children are living in poverty? In my view, there is no justice, and morality suffers, when in our wealthy country, millions of children go to bed hungry. That is not morality. ... I think when we talk about morality, what we are talking about is all of God's children, the poor, the wretched, they have a right to go to a doctor when they are sick!
Sanders hopes to downplay social issues in favor of uniting Americans around his economic policies
Over his decades-long political career, Sanders has sought to deemphasize what he sees as divisive social issues in order to better unite average Americans around his economic agenda. Most of the US's problems, he believes, are rooted in "an economic system in which the rich controls, to a large degree, the political and economic life of the country."
And that's the pitch he made at Liberty. "Let me be very frank," Sanders said near the start of his speech. "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 he suggested putting them aside for now, and focusing on areas where they could "find common ground" and "reach out of our zone of comfort."
Sanders's speech was frequently interrupted by cheers. But it became apparent during the Q&A that a much larger portion of the audience was still skeptical. When moderator David Nasser said that a majority of Christians would agree that children need protection, "but would also go further and say children in the womb need our protection even more," the audience erupted with loud roars of approval — far more than Sanders ever got.
In response, the senator straightforwardly defended his pro-choice views, saying that the government shouldn't be telling women what to do with their bodies. But then he tried to pivot back to the morality of the GOP's economic agenda. "Here's where we can try to find common ground. ... When you talk about issues of children, understand that the Republican budget threw 27 million people off of health care, including many children." Nasser countered, though, that the Democratic budget funded Planned Parenthood.