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Talking religion: Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at Liberty University

Talking religion: Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at Liberty University

He wasn’t exactly preaching to the choir, and Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders acknowledged that from the start on September 14 when he gave a speech at Virginia’s conservative religious college, Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell:

…let me start off by acknowledging what I think all of you already know. And that is the views that many here at Liberty University have and I, on a number of important issues, are very, very different. I believe in a woman’s rights….

And the right of a woman to control her own body.

I believe gay rights and gay marriage.

Those are my views, and it is no secret. But I came here today, because 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.

Sanders, who is Jewish, spoke to the group about morality and social justice:

You are a school which, as all of us in our own way, tries to understand the meaning of morality. What does is mean to live a moral life? And you try to understand, in this very complicated modern world that we live in, what the words of the Bible mean in today’s society.

You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings, and I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.

…through the lens of religion:

I am far, far from being 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 and Buddhism, and other religions.

And that vision is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12, and it states, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the war and the prophets.” That is the golden rule. Do unto others, what you would have them do to you. That is the golden rule, and it is not very complicated.

Sanders makes the point that “it would be hard to make the case that we are a just society, or anything resembling a just society today,” and with that he addressed income and wealth inequality and poverty:

We are living in a time — and I warn all of you if you would, put this in the context of the Bible, not me, in the context of the Bible — we are living in a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension. And I’m talking about tens of billions of dollars, enough to support their families for thousands of years. With huge yachts, and jet planes and tens of billions. More money than they would ever know what to do with.

But at that very same moment, there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, who are struggling to feed their families. They are struggling to put a roof over their heads, and some of them are sleeping out on the streets. They are struggling to find money in order to go to a doctor when they are sick.

Health care:

In my view, there is no justice when thousands of Americans die every single year because they do not have any health insurance and do not go to a doctor when they should. I have talked personally to doctors throughout Vermont and physicians around the country. And without exception, they tell me there are times when patients walk into their office very, very sick and they say, why didn’t you come in here when you’re sick? And the answer is, I do not have any health insurance or I have a high deductible or I thought the problem would get better. And sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes they die because they lack health insurance.


In my view, there is no justice when low income and working class mothers are forced to separate from their babies one or two weeks after birth and go back to work because they need the money that their jobs provide. Now I know everybody here — we all are, maybe in different ways, but all of us believe in family values.

Unemployment and racial inequality:

In my view there is no justice in our country when youth unemployment exists at tragically high levels. I requested a study last month from a group of economists. And what they told me is that 51 percent of African American high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 20 are unemployed or underemployed — 51 percent.

and the prison system:

We have in this country sufficient amounts of money to put more people in jail than any other country on earth. The United States has more people in jail than China; a communist authoritarian country.

Video and a transcript of his speech can be found at the Washington Post; the video is also on YouTube.

The New York Times included responses from students, some who were not swayed:

“Calling on us to help the neediest, that resonates with me as a Christian,” said Quincy Thompson, the student body president, who had a chance to briefly meet Mr. Sanders after the event. “But as a Christian, I think the responsibility to help them falls to the church, not the government.”

Others could not look past differences on social issues.

“How can he be for family values but also for abortion?” said Adam Ochs, a sophomore political science major from California.

And others who were:

“I liked almost everything he said,” said Sarah Fleet, a sophomore who grew up just a few miles from the university in southern Virginia. She noted that she did not agree with Mr. Sanders’s views on abortion, but that his calls to help address childhood poverty and hunger resonated.

“And there’s no one who should be expecting everyone to agree on everything,” she said.

Further commentary:

This is what a political earthquake looks like: Why Bernie Sanders’s speech at Liberty University matters,”

What Bernie Sanders’s Speech at Liberty University Says About His Rise,” The Wall Street Journal

Bernie Sanders Gives Liberty University a Lesson in Christianity,” Esquire

 (Image is of Vines Center at Liberty University, the location where Sanders spoke, but not a photo from the event itself.)


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Lionel Archdale

I seriously doubt the misquote of Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the war and the prophets.” can be attributed to “transcription error” or even “spell-checker.” What editing was done before this ‘went to press’?

David Allen

Have you ever heard New England Yankees speak? They leave off Rs that are there and pronounce words with Rs that aren’t there. If the transcriber wasn’t familiar with the text and they were not used to Bernie’s accent, I very much believe that it’s a transcription error.

For the Lead’s part, it was a cut & paste from the original article. I doubt that it was noticed. We are a volunteer staff, we try to catch the goofs. We’re not always successful. It’s a minor thing to be picky about!

Shirley O'Shea

Voluntary giving is part of the Christian way of life, but a deep and strong desire for justice is also required of Christians. I am very glad that Sen. Sanders addressed economic justice directly with Liberty University students. I do not believe it is a Christian disposition to make reflexive judgments that government cannot and should not (except in exceedingly limited measures) act to promote economic justice. Without that, society’s stability is seriously threatened. The conflation of Christian faith and libertarian economic policy has been a disaster and something of which many Christians must repent.

Anand Gnanadesikan


While I largely agree with you, I think it is important to recognize that when some folks say “cannot”, they mean that the indirect effect of certain actions can actually make problems worse. For example, rent control, insofar as it decreases housing supply, can actually make homelessness worse (whether it actually does so or not is a vexed issue, but there’s little evidence that it *helps*). In northern cities like Baltimore, the New Deal was actually responsible for much of residential segregation (since the FHA redlined neighborhoods).

Liberals tend to have a blind faith in government action. Conservatives tend to have a blind faith in the market. Christians should not place a blind faith in either.


Anand Gnanadesikan

As I said above Shirley, I largely agree with you. For example the Works Project Adminstration seems to have been a great example of something we’d both support. In the modern world, I also think that more redistributive tax rates (higher taxes on people like me) are called for.

But that only works if the money actually gets redistributed. I give Bernie Sanders credit for articulating the problem. I am less convinced that his solutions would actually redistribute money to the poor. In some cases, (like expanding Social Security) I fear that while some poor folks might benefit, the net impact would be to transfer more money to the well-off.

Shirley O'Shea

I’ve never been able to do a thorough study of New Deal policies and their outcomes over decades, unfortunately – and I do mean unfortunately, because few historical topics interest me more. However, I know I would have been a New Dealer then, I am a New Dealer in spirit now, and I am firmly convinced that even with its unintended consequences, the massive intervention of the Federal intervention in the economy to help people without jobs, decent food or clothing or housing, etc., is worlds better than what we have now. Income inequality and lack of opportunity is real and massive. Now my little upstate town has panhandlers on Main Street. I myself have little to offer them, except solidarity. We need justice, and I recall Steinbeck’s writing, which borrowed from Julia Ward Howe – the grapes of wrath are growing ready for the vintage.

June Butler

Amen, Shirley. You said it far better than I could have.

Shirley O'Shea

Thank you, June. Let’s hope for the best.

Leslie Marshall

All the students & staff agree with Sanders , that it is right to help widows and orphans. I hope Sanders ears were opened when the student said…”It’s the Church’s responsibility, not the State.” Does Sanders know that Conservatives already ‘out-give’ Democrats by 33%? If Sanders would agree to step out of the way and forgo (some, not all) government based welfare, then $$$ support for the poor would skyrocket. (as discretionary income for the Christian rises.) The question is…does Bernie Sanders believe his own words?

June Butler

Leslie, here’s the link to a more recent study, which was listed first on Google, so not chosen to deliberately skew my way. You’ll have to take my word for that.

“What the MIT researchers did find, however, was that conservatives give more to religious organizations, such as their own churches, and liberals more to secular recipients.

“The degree of religious contribution is important, because a 2007 study by Indiana University found that only 10% to 25% of church donations end up being spent on social welfare purposes, of which assistance to the poor is only a subset. In other words, if you think of “giving” as “giving to the poor,” a lot of the money donated by conservatives may be missing the target.”

Which is pretty much as I expected. If we ended welfare programs such as food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, health care supplements, etc., I don’t see conservatives picking up the slack with donations, much less supplying the needs of the shocking number of children who presently live in poverty.

Leslie Marshall

More good jobs for unemployed and underemployed could be the biggest and best boon for poor children. … as no one cares for a child more than his/her own father.

Helen Kromm

Leslie, I’m left wondering by what basis you come to these remarkable conclusions. For starters, your observation that conservatives are more giving or generous is simply false. The below article, appearing in the Washington Post, and based primarily on an MIT study, thoroughly debunks that theory.

Your other statement has me completely baffled. You posit that if we abandon some government programs, we will see charitable giving “skyrocket”. Your rational for this, I suppose, is that tax dollars will be freed up after abandoning certain programs (programs which incidentally you don’t specify), and those dollars will find their way to charity aimed at the poor.

So my question to you is this. It is a fact that we live in a time where the accumulation of wealth for the top 1% is unprecedented and historic. In fact, never mind the top 1%. Let’s just limit this to the top .1%.

And the top 1/10 of one percent in this nation hold twenty percent of the wealth. That is an establish fact and reality. If you are talking about the top one percent, they control forty-two percent of the wealth. And the bottom eighty percent have five percent of that wealth.

Those numbers are based on a 2010 study at UCSC. In fact, those numbers are even worse today.

So, it is an established fact that those at the top have unprecedented, historic wealth. So my question is what are they waiting for?

“then $$$ support for the poor would skyrocket. (as discretionary income for the Christian rises.)”

I’m going to take a leap here and assume that those who enjoy this current largesse and grossly inequitable distribution of wealth in this country identify as Christian. So where are they? Where are they in this struggle to alleviate poverty?

Because if we follow your logic, we should be well on our way toward alleviating poverty through private donations. I mean, seriously. What can you be thinking here? We are in a position where the bottom eighty percent control less wealth than they ever have before. The top twenty percent control more wealth than they ever have before. And you believe that the answer is to dismantle some unnamed government programs and suspend even more taxation so that it will trickle down?

I’m wondering where this trickle is right now when we look at the disparity of income and wealth in this nation. Because surely it hasn’t materialized yet. And we have absolutely no reason, and I mean none whatsoever, to believe that it ever will.

Leslie Marshall

Granted some articles are ‘old’…and I realize statistics slant many ways according to biases. I admit, I’m biased too. 🙂

Still an interesting topic…that Conservatives ‘out-give’ and ‘out-volunteer’ their Liberal counterparts. The 33% came from measuring ‘Reddest’ States vs ‘Blue-ist’ States and their giving habits…Red State residents give 3.5% of their income to charity vs 1.9% from Blue States. [even though they earn less.]

It’s interesting that 40% of Americans, that attend Church/religious services regularly, give to charity. The number is 15%, for those that never attend. Regular attendance for Democrats is 23%, and for Conservatives, it’s 46%.

The ‘non-religious’ & atheistic faction of our country is on the rise — nearly all of this growing group, votes Democrat.

June Butler

Leslie, may we have the source for your statement that conservatives out-give Democrats to widows and orphans by 33%?

Leslie Marshall

It’s wonderful to see such a large group of young Christians. Seems Sanders was very uncomfortable speaking there, but I think he was honest, and his audience was respectful. [Don’t see why a stadium of Christians would be compared to a Lion’s Den] The Christians did not devour Bernie, quite the opposite. I wonder how a stadium of Berkeley Students would treat Ted Cruz or Ben Carson?

June Butler

Is there no space here for a little levity? Lion’s den as ironic metaphor for a speech in a venue whose leaders disagree with many of Bernie Sander’s policies. Kudos, too, to the leaders of Liberty for inviting Sanders and to the students who were respectful. Come now, Christians need not always be sobersides.

William (Bill) Paul III

Good points, Leslie. The Lion’s Den allusion is a lot like the similarly incredible charge of “theocracy” lobbed about when, for instance, Christians ask not to be removed from or silenced in the public square or stand up for the unborn only to be told that being pro-life is disqualified because it is “religious.” Some on the left are honest enough to admit totalitarian instances of liberal intolerance, but not all.

William (Bill) Paul III

This is the full title from Esquire:
“Bernie Sanders Gives Liberty University a Lesson in Christianity: The senator from Vermont reminds his audience that there’s more to being Christian than being pro-life.”

Well, there is much I might wish for Liberty, as I did for its founder, in the way of a broader and deeper Christianity. But over the years I have met so many exceptional people from there (against some of my own prejudiced anticipations of what they would be like). But I praise God for their pro-life stance, witness, the gentle firmness with which they hold it, and I would say to Esquire and others discipleship is about more than being pro-life, but never less. It sounds like many of the students get that. Maybe Sanders could have gone there not just to teach (pace Esquire) but also to learn.

Wm Paul

David Allen

Then I would suggest that you are speaking of a stance apart from anti-abortionists.

David Allen

The folks attending Liberty University and those behind it are not pro-life, they are anti-abortion. Those positions are not the same things.

Anti-abortionists do not respect the rights of a woman over her own body and do not approve of abortion even to save the life of the mother.

Bro David – pro-life, but not anti-abortion

Anand Gnanadesikan

David, my comment was to your assertion that

“Anti-abortionists do not approve of abortion even to save the life of the mother.”

This is not the official position of the Catholic Church, the Mormons, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. All of these groups allow abortion to protect the life of the mother.

David Allen

I’m not sure what you are on about because you just claim”not true” with no explanation what you think that I said is not true.

Please refrain from chastising folks.

Anand Gnanadesikan

Not true David. Even the Catholic Church allows abortion to save the life of the mother under the doctrine of “double effect” (i.e. in the case of a cancerous womb, the primary goal is not to produce a dead fetus).

David Allen

I am not saying that I am in support of abortion on demand. I am in support of a woman making the decisions about herself and her unborn child which is exactly what the issue is. I am in support of saving a mother’s life should she choose to do so, even if her decision ends the life of her child.

That is also what TEC’s position is as well.


Sorry, abortion is taking a life. (And how is it you know what all people attending Liberty are?) Read Bonhoeffer who considered it ‘unthinkable’ for Christians. Or just be honest: a life ends. And TEC now supports through its Executive Council’s support and funding partial birth abortion. Unspeakable in my mind. And surely a serious thinker would admit “woman”s right over her own body” is not an accurate description of the dilemma or issue here. At least describe the real issue, namely, the ending of innocent life.

Please follow the comment policy and post every time with your first and last name. – ed

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