Sanders Gets “B-” for Religious Outreach at Liberty U Appearance

I went to convocation at Liberty U, and it was okay.* Well, I wasn’t really there for Bernie Sanders’ speech to the Liberty University student body, but I did watch the video. I wasn’t kidding about the speech, though: it was okay. Not great, not terrible. Just okay. For the most part Bernie played things safe, and reaped a lot of “meh” in return.

Sanders does deserve credit for going to Liberty, and for claiming upfront his differences with the conservative-leaning college. He even took some questions after the speech. The audience at Liberty seemed willing to listen (or well-behaved, anyway). But it can’t be easy for a candidate to expose himself or herself like that in the midst of a presidential primary.

Still, this was mostly Sanders’ stump speech garnished with a bit of religious rhetoric. That’s his campaign in a nutshell, to be honest. For better or worse, the man is focused on economic inequality like a six-year-old on sugar. (I’d say like a college student on beer, but you know. Liberty University and all that.) If Twitter is any indication, his fans loved the speech, and everybody else just sort of shrugged. No new ground was broken.

Unlike my esteemed RD colleague Sarah Posner, I thought Sanders took most of the usual advice pols get on religion: talk about toning down partisan divides, talk about commonalities, talk about standing in solidarity. Which is fine, I guess, but it didn’t exactly move the conversation on religion and politics forward. Bit of a missed opportunity there.

A bigger miss was that Sanders didn’t really dig into the religious material the way he could have. He quoted only two passages from scripture: Matthew 7:12 (“Do unto others as you would have them do to you”) and Amos 5:24 (“Let justice roll down like waters”), without dwelling on either one. Sanders might have told the story of Hillel teaching the Golden Rule to show how close Jewish and Christian social teachings are, and build a connection with his audience without getting into a mushy faith autobiography. And while the Amos passage was the hinge into Sanders’ discussion of economic injustice, he didn’t bother to explain the concept of justice, or its rich and complex tradition in Jewish scripture.

A keen orator like Pres. Obama would have taken the opportunity to explore the theology being invoked. For all that his faith talk gets dismissed as phony pandering, Obama is conversant enough with Christian thought that he can creatively reinterpret it, as he did at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral in South Carolina. It’s enough—more than enough—to convince his listeners that he gets it, that he understands them and their religious concerns in more than a superficial way.

Not everyone is an Obama, obviously. Like Sarah says, Democratic candidates are often advised to wear their faith on their sleeves, the better to convince conservative voters that they aren’t evil scary secularists; that they can appeal to Real Americans with their Real Faith. It winds up privileging a shallow kind of faith more interested in name-checking scripture passages than thinking through their implications. It also chases a phantom: the religious swing voter who never actually swings Democratic.

Had I been advising Sanders, I might have reminded the candidate that he was speaking to a college convocation, after all. He should have challenged the students to deeply rethink their understanding of justice, pointing out how often the word appears in the Bible; how often it’s explicitly equated with economic equality; how it permeates all of the major narratives from Exodus to Exile to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The case for Sanders’ platform is all there in scripture, if he’d wanted to dig it out.

It’s not that Sanders should play the role of Sunday School teacher, just that he might have been more effective with this audience by showing that he could entertain their worldview, even if he disagreed with it. He tried to do that, but he didn’t take it far enough.

For example, Sanders could have hit more explicitly the theme of “overlapping consensus,” John Rawls’ idea that people of very different perspectives can come together in a civil society to agree on basic norms that sponsor a coherent civic life. There was some of that in his address, particularly when he challenged the audience to agree that feeding children should be a core American value, but too often, it came across as a litany of one inequality after another. Voters simply don’t respond to facts, especially when they’re recited by someone as different as a Brooklyn-born Jewish socialist is to a mostly southern Evangelical college crowd.

But getting into the nitty-gritty of scripture and telling the crowd point blank “Turns out my platform is what your own faith tells you to do”? That would be different, and effective if done well. I can appreciate the secularist point that this feels like pandering to the religious, and that Sanders did well to avoid it, but I’ll have to plead different strokes. I thought he could have gone further, but reasonable people can disagree on that.

Sanders concluded by citing Pope Francis’ influence, which was probably the biggest risk of the speech. Francis is not universally beloved in the Evangelical community, nor admired as a role model. Sanders could very easily have come across as seeing Catholicism and Evangelicalism as interchangeable facets of an undifferentiated Christianity, which would have been a major blunder. He scooted away from the subject quickly enough to avoid any damage, though.

Pundits and others will no doubt wax rhapsodic about Sanders hitting a home run at Liberty. I thought he got a single, maybe a double. It was a respectable performance, not exactly like watching David Ortiz crush a ball to left-center.

But I suspect that the real audience wasn’t the student body in the auditorium. Given the cheers he got, he was and will remain a minor candidate on the Liberty campus. His own base will be thrilled, of course. More important, Sanders may have done just enough to convince the elite gatekeepers in the media that he is authentic enough to speak to everyday Americans and be a serious candidate for the Oval Office.

Bernie Sanders got religion, and it was okay.

*If you don’t get the joke (and you probably don’t), see here.