In Liberty U Speech, Sanders Breaks the Democratic “Faith Outreach” Mold

I finally got a chance to watch Bernie Sanders’ Monday speech at Liberty University this morning, and was struck by what a radical and refreshing departure it was from the standard Democratic “faith outreach” fare.

The speech wasn’t about Sanders himself, and it wasn’t about how his audience felt about him. It wasn’t about Sanders wearing his faith on his sleeve, and it wasn’t about Sanders contesting his audience’s view of the Bible, his faith, or theirs. And it was not, contrary to Jack Jenkins’ analysis at ThinkProgress, a speech about a “progressive embrace of faith.” It was a lesson in how to do politics in a religious setting.

Sanders didn’t go to Liberty to prove his faithiness (I know that’s not actually a word, but I can think of no other to describe a politician’s strained effort to prove his or her religious bona fides. If you can think of one, please let me know). Sanders didn’t go to Liberty to hedge his views on abortion or same-sex marriage in the unrealistic hope that a handful of evangelicals would switch their votes to the Democratic side.

Sanders also didn’t got to Liberty to change evangelical minds on the issues that made Liberty’s founder, the late Jerry Falwell, the declared leader of the “moral majority.” His talk of hope for common ground wasn’t based—as Democratic “faith” efforts in 2008 were—on scaling back his support for reproductive and LGBT rights in order to find a sliver of agreement with the most ardent opponents of those rights.

Sanders quite plainly delivered his message without pandering, and without tiptoeing around his impassioned critique of greed and political corruption. He managed to do this without the well-worn religious pabulum used by politicians who unimaginatively talk about how faith informed their political views, making their speeches about proving something about themselves, rather than articulating a political program.

Yes, he cited the Bible. And yes, he pressed the universalist nature of his political platform, centered on ending the intolerable income inequality in the world’s richest nation. “I am far, far from a perfect human being, but I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions — in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions — and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12,” said Sanders, referring to the Golden Rule.

Sure, conservative views on the role of government versus the role of the church and family will stand in the way of most conservative evangelicals buying his political platform. As Quincy Thompson, Liberty’s student body president, told the New York Times, “calling on us to help the neediest, that resonates with me as a Christian.” But, he added, “as a Christian, I think the responsibility to help them falls to the church, not the government.”

But if Sanders’ speech provokes a discussion about precisely that—about the role of government in addressing poverty and inequality in a pluralistic democracy where the government should not yield to one particular religious view—the takeaway from his speech would be far more than how a Democrat ventured into the lion’s den. The speech would be a model of how to ditch empty religious rhetoric in favor of an unalloyed political engagement that gets to the heart of one of the county’s deepest conflicts over how we govern and address the basic needs of all our citizens.