Ethics Institutions

‘Stand with the poor,’ Sanders tells students at Liberty University

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington March 10, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SANDERS-FAITH, originally transmitted on April 29, 2015.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington March 10, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke Monday (Sept. 14) at an evangelical school where he framed his fight against wealth and income inequality in terms of morality and justice.

Sanders, a Vermont independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination, conceded that many in the audience at Liberty University disagree with his support for abortion rights and gay marriage. But he suggested they might agree that, at a time when “a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension,” other people shouldn’t have to struggle to feed their families, put a roof over their heads or visit a doctor.

 “When we talk about morality and when we talk about justice, we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he said to applause from the audience of nearly 12,000.

Sanders said he chose to speak at the school, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, because it’s important to find common ground. There is no justice, he said, when the rich get richer and children go to bed hungry and low-income mothers return to work a week after delivering a baby because they can’t afford to stay home.

“It is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people and when necessary to take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed in my view is doing this country enormous harm,” he said to applause.

David Nasser, the school’s senior vice president for spiritual development, drew loud applause after the speech when he told Sanders on stage that, while most Christians agree it’s immoral to protect billionaires at the expense of society’s most vulnerable citizens, they would say unborn children need protection, too.

Sanders also drew applause in responding that it’s “improper” for the government to involve itself in this “painful and difficult choice” for women.

“I don’t want to be too provocative here, but very often conservatives say, ‘Get the government out of my life,'” he said. “On this very sensitive issue…my view is I respect absolutely a family that says, ‘No, we are not going to have an abortion.’ But I would hope that other people respect the very painful and difficult choice that many women feel they have to make and don’t want the government telling them what they have to do.”

Student Government Association president Quincy Thompson, 22, of Dallas, said Sanders connected with students, who were excited to hear a different perspective. Thompson, a pastoral leadership major, said Sanders’ statistics on poverty “struck a chord” with him personally. But he said churches – not the government – should address those needs.

“From today, I’m going to be more aware of the people that are in need in my community of Lynchburg,” Thompson said.

The late Rev. Falwell, a televangelist and conservative political commentator who died in 2007, founded Liberty University in 1971. It’s now the largest private, nonprofit university in the nation. Its code of conduct urges “caution” when viewing movies rated R or PG-13 and bans sexual relations outside marriage between a “natural-born” man and woman. Faculty are asked to affirm a doctrinal statement based on Christian beliefs.

The school has become a regular stop for conservative candidates. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced his presidential campaign there in March.

Students are generally conservative. In 2012, 93 percent of Liberty students who voted on campus supported Republican Mitt Romney, according to the school.

Liberty drew negative attention in 2009 when a school official revoked its recognition of a club for college Democrats. But school president and Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr,. called the official’s actions an “aberration.” He said during an interview last week the school now allows political clubs to meet on campus but doesn’t endorse any of them.

Liberty student Derek Atlas, 19, of New York, said he’s against abortion but is more left-leaning than his fellow students on a variety of issues. He said he’s wary of Sanders’ “socialist views” but admires him for fighting for the middle class, minorities and women rather than for big business.

“I believe Christ tells us to help the poor, feed the needy and shelter the homeless,” said Atlas. “I like how (Sanders) wages war on poverty, not poor people.”

Catherine Trevithick, 22, of Reston, Va., said she opposes abortion, “big government,” and gun control. She likes Republican candidate Donald Trump and said switching to Sanders would be “a long shot.”

“But I’m not going to be close-minded and ignore what he has to say,” she said before the speech. “College is a time to hear from people of all backgrounds and opinions.”

As a nonprofit, the school must invite all candidates who are running for a particular office. Sanders is the first of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination to accept, and his speech was mandatory for all residential undergraduate students.

Falwell said in an interview last week that he was “pleasantly surprised,” when he learned Sanders would participate. He hopes Sanders’ appearance helps reverse the impression that the school isn’t open to opposing views. The university is in the middle of a $500 million expansion and wants to advance to the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.

“We’ve always tried to present both sides because we believe that college students are at an age where they need to hear viewpoints from all ends of the spectrum,” Falwell said. “We’re proud of our students for treating speakers that are not in line with their views with respect.”

(Nicole Gaudiano writes for USA Today.)

About the author

Nicole Gaudiano


Click here to post a comment

  • Given his doctrinaire support for repeatedly failed, medievalist redistributionist policies, his slogan should be to stand with him to keep the poor impoverished.

    “We fought a war on poverty, and the poor lost.” (Jack Kemp)

  • “But (Quincy Thompson, 22) said churches – not the government – should address those needs. “From today, I’m going to be more aware of the people that are in need in my community of Lynchburg,” Thompson said.”

    Poor kid knows nothing at all.
    Churches are the reason for poverty – not the cure.

    The kid knows nothing of the great depression and nothing of the economic nightmares caused by religions through world history. Sanders is correct that only the Government can fund the necessary education and skills to lift people out of extreme poverty.

    Religion is a nuisance.

  • There are solid Bibical foundations for the positions Mr Sanders took in regards to caring for the poor and the material inequalities prevalent in the U.S. today. He challenged the students of Liberty University to reflect on their Christian faith and its relationship to the laizefair (forgive the spelling) capitalism so prominent in many circles in this nation today. Maybe the task of the Church is to call a culture to repentance for it celebration of greed and self centeredness and to transform itself into one where the needs of the poor and the least among us are always at the forefront when making our decisions as a societ

  • Duke,

    “Maybe the task of the Church is to call a culture to repentance for it celebration of greed and self centeredness ”

    Isn’t that greedy and self-centered of the Church?
    Maybe for once we should try governing without any religion? Things would probably go better.

  • Sanders took a much-needed step, a simple effort to be civil rather than emonize those with different ideas. People don’t have to agree, but they would be ahead if they at least explained their ideas.

    Not mentioned in the story is that Sanders, a Jew, spoke at a Christian institution. That’s also important. We need more inter-religious conversations.

  • Bernie is closer than any announced candidate to Christian ideals. Economic policies of Social Democrats are very compatible with the mission of Christianity when helping the poor and sick. Northern Europe seems to function quiet well and people there work hard even with the social benefits. These independent churches that preach you can pray or donate your way to wealth are misleading large numbers of people.

    Too many churches have too much wealth and power due to their constant catering to the interests of the rich and not the poor.

  • PS
    The students at Liberty need to be reminded that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then a rich man to enter Heaven. Taking care of the poor and the sick is every Christian’s duty through his or her actions including who an Christian votes for on election day.

  • On the poverty issue, the Big Government-alone approach has failed miserably for at least two reasons.

    First, the overhead is too high. For every dollar shipped off to some federal welfare bureaucracy in DC, most of it gets eaten up by overhead — ie salaries. Shut down such programs and steer that money directly into low-overhead, community-based nonprofit poverty fighters with a proven track record of operating successfully in the nation’s poorest areas and most of every dollar spent will go directly to the poor. Second, neighborhood nonprofit poverty fighters don’t just give people money and material resources; they deal with the behaviors like substance abuse or marketable skills deficits which put people in dire straits in the first place.

    Either we care about the poor or we don’t. If we do, we can’t keep promoting policies that fail the poor. We must promote policies that actually free people from poverty.

  • That sound nice, Duke, but in real life, the only kind of redistributionism that helps the poor is when people actually donate their time and money to local poverty fighters who have the skills, the know-how, and the daily dedication needed to help the poor effectively. Simply pulling dollars out of one person’s pocket and handing it to another person is a feel-good but shallow answer that substitutes feeling good for actually doing good for other people. It does nothing to address the root causes of poverty, which vary from person to person. Only a neighborhood nonprofit poverty fighting organization can treat each person uniquely and respond rightly to that person’s need.

  • It’s good that Sanders spoke at a Christian organization but that’s a whole other issue. There needs to be more of that, yes.

    The big problem with Sanders is that his ideology has blinded him to the raw facts of what works and what doesn’t work in helping the poor.

    And if you put an ideology that makes you feel good ahead of a policy that actually does people good, you’re putting ideas ahead of people.

    It’s too bad that both the Republicans and Sanders’ Democratic colleagues are too block-headed to counter his nonsense with effective and sensible alternatives that actually help pull people out of poverty.

  • Observer, if you truly care about the poor, you will devote your time to learning what works and what doesn’t work in helping the poor.

  • Bernie Sanders misses the best thing that Jesus says.

    Jesus says he will eradicate the evil ones.
    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    I wish he had brought this up at his Liberty University visit. I guess gays and contraception users should beware of this warning from Jesus.

  • Jesus the fire-breathing killer? I don’t think so, Max.

    You’ve got a little problem called the Sermon on the Mount…..for starters.

  • I’m not a big Sanders fan, but after reading Jack’s defensive articulations of economic royalism, I’m thinking perhaps I have misjudged the man.

  • Jack
    What are the answers for those who are disabled, elderly, too young, lack family support, sick, lack the education, bankrupt by the cost due to a health condition, have limited abilities to fend for fully for themselves, trapped in communities with little economic opportunity, denied adequate employment rights, etc,? Are there people who have made bad decisions? Yes of course, but there are plenty who stopped by their circumstances. We can do better.

    I see companies and their owners exploiting the vulnerable everyday and further concentrating power and wealth. Would you do away with social security? Medicare/ Medicaid?

  • Jack, I agree with you on the importance of grass roots poverty eradication programs. but I submit to you that the very individuals/volunteers required to make such programs work are the product of a culture reclaimed from selfcenteredness and materialism. The central role of the church is to change hearts and minds so that people hear and respond to Christ call to care for the poor. I did not hear or read the speech, nor do I know much about Senator Sanders recommendations on dealing with poverty. What I got from the article in question was that Senator Sanders asked the students of Liberty University, a university with an unabashedly Christian world view, to consider the Gospel’s concern for the poor as they decide how they live out their Christian witness. The actions they take in regards to those decisions will take on many forms from support of the large government programs you so clearly dislike or the local community based programs you endorse.

  • Observer, what do you think my answers are? Reread my posts.

    Government needs to get out of the social services business and hand its trillions over to dedicated, competent, neighborhood-based nonprofit poverty fighting organizations that are already spread out across the nation, in every state, city, town, and community.

    Right now, its actions are competing against these groups and in some cases driving them out with its disastrous, no-strings-attached view on material aid.

  • In other words, Observer, these nonprofits, which have been on the front lines against poverty and pathology in America since Tocqueville marveled about them in his “Democracy in America” writings of the 1830s, can do an infinitely better job at some of the same things that Washington does. And in areas where only Washington can do the job, let Washington do the job.

    This is common sense.

  • In other words, “George,” you are the definition of a reactionary who doesn’t like to be challenged with new ideas that take you away from the either/or simplicity of Big Government-only vs. doing nothing for the poor.

  • It’s all about what works and what doesn’t work. If we care about the poor, we don’t just support a program because it has the word, “poor” slapped onto it.

    I like large government programs that work best, and I don’t like large government programs that work least or not at all.

  • Duke, our choices are not Big Government-only vs. laissez-faire, ie doing nothing about poverty.

    There is a third way that involves the whole of civil society — strengthening families, communities, and those neighborhood-based nonprofits which have a long and successful track record of dealing with poverty in all of its aspects, dealing with the whole person, from immediate material needs to the causes of their being in poverty in the first place.

    This false either/or dichotomy — ie Big Government vs. do-nothing — is a symptom of a dumbing down of thought and dialogue in this country.

  • Jack, please tell me how I can rephrase my comments so I can convince you that I agree with you about the third way you so eloquently described. The task of the church is to call people to participate in the types of organizations you advocate. But once the church starts lifting it voice in this arena the people who hear it and felt led by it are going to respond in many different ways. Some will feel drawn to the types of minstries you advocate and others are going to feel compelled to support the big government programs. Senator Sanders I believe sought to engage the students of Liberty in a discussion about the importance of caring for the poor while not advocating for any particular approach. Just having this discussion is victory in it self and is the first step in addressing this issue. The church must be a leading voice in encouraging this discussion if it is to be true to the Gospel

  • I’m not sure I can agree, Duke, because of two things. First, the Big Government programs have largely failed. Child poverty, for example, has risen since their being instituted.

    But second, and more disturbing, is the zero-sum relationship between the Big Government approach and the community-based approach. The rise of government becoming a direct social service provider coincides with the withering of these nonprofit groups…..partly because government antipoverty programs come with no strings attached — if you’re below the poverty line and satisfy other conditions, you can get benefits and nothing is required of you. Contrast that with the nonprofit approach, where recipients are required to deal with deeply rooted problems like substance abuse. If you’re a substance abuser in denial of it, you will choose the government approach and you won’t get out of poverty as a result.

    So the two are in competition with each other — a zero-sum situation.

  • So Max, what’s wrong with being against greed and self-centeredness?

    While I don’t think greed and self-centeredness have much to do with the fight against poverty or with how to design a nation’s economic policy, I do think it’s a perfectly noble thing to call on folks not to be greedy or self-centered.

    If an atheist instead of a Christian issued such a call, would that make you happier, Max?

    Good grief….it’s like talking to a six-year-old repeating the bigotry of his parents.

  • I guess the problem I have, Duke, is that the loudest calls to help the poor often come with an implication that the reason some people are poor is that other people are rich or comfortable.

    And once that premise is accepted, what follows logically is precisely the same Big Government approach that for so long has kept people locked into poverty rather than freed from it.

    Once that premise is accepted, it becomes a matter of redistribution: Take from those who have, give to those who have not, and you’ve solved the poverty problem.

    But what if someone’s being rich has absolutely nothing to do with someone else’s being poor? What if they’re completely independent of each other?

    Worse, what if it turns out that if we tax people who have succeeded and subsidize those who have not succeeded, we will end up with more people who don’t succeed?

    We need to step back, ask these & other questions, and then come back and deal with poverty in a smarter way.

  • Jack, I hear you. Nothing about poverty is simple. Sadly modern culture demands simple, immediate answers for everything and it is the simplistic answers with the loudest voices that tend to carry the day and be heard. You and I have engaged in a reflective and respectful conversation an I know that I am the wiser for it. It occurred to me last night after reading your post that the seeming lack of understanding on my part is the result of the fact that I was having a theological conversation and you were having a economic/ political one. I am quessing both of use are used to being shouted down for having a more reflective approach to issues and we both wanted to feel heard(I know I did). You heard me and you helped me to hear you. I look forward to future conversations

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.