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Bernie Sanders preaches the Social Gospel at Liberty

Monday morning, when many of his co-religionists (present company included) were in synagogue hearing the shofar sound the start of the Jewish New Year, Bernie Sanders was at the late Jerry Falwell's university proclaiming the Social Gospel. The students felt the Bern, mildly.

Liberty University athletic logo
Liberty University athletic logo

Liberty University athletic logo

On Monday morning, when many of his co-religionists (present company included) were in synagogue listening to the shofar herald the start of the Jewish New Year, Bernie Sanders was at the late Jerry Falwell’s university proclaiming a robust version of the welfare state:

Do you think it’s moral when 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 and that is not in my view … what America should be about.

Sanders is as non-religious as American Jews come, and if he was aware that he was speaking on the first day of Rosh Hashanah he gave no sign of it. He was, he said, motivated by the vision shared by “all of the great religions” that “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 law and the prophets.’ That is the Golden Rule.”

(I can’t help but mention that the Washington Post’‘s Chris Cillizza rendered Sanders’ Brooklyn-accented “the law and the prophets” as “the war and the prophets.” Ah, Chris.)

This is, no doubt, a great county. Here was your classic secular New York Jew, a senator from Vermont (the most secular state in the union) who is the closest thing to a Man of the Left in American national politics today, showing up at ground zero of the Religious Right; and on both sides civility was the order of the day.

The would-be Democratic presidential nominee was at pains to profess his desire for common ground even as he acknowledged his differences with his very Republican audience. The 12,000 students obliged to show up for weekly Convocation clapped mildly now and then, and never booed. The Liberty administration was generous enough to allow for a section of Bernie supporters, so even his most socially liberal pronouncements — i.e. on abortion rights and same-sex marriage — won a smattering of applause. Politesse reigned.

I suspect the scene would be a lot less polite if, say, Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee were giving his stump speech at Brown or U.C. Santa Cruz. On the other hand, what Sanders had on offer was a reading of biblical morality — the injunction to help the least among us — that the Liberty crowd could hardly gainsay. It’s not clear what morality card Cruz or Huckabee could play to earn some grudging assent from those across the culture war divide.

I do think Sanders might have won more friends at Liberty had he not, like most New England politicians, eschewed any reference to his own religious roots. Evangelicals embrace Jews these days, and they love hearing personal testimonies.

I’d have advised him to skip Matthew and go with the passage from Isaiah that we’ll be reading in a few days on Yom Kippur — the prophet’s warning against those who seek to substitute religious practices for works of justice:

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.

This, I’d say, is a lot closer to Sanders’ vision than the Golden Rule. He might even have used it to explain why he was preaching justice in Lynchburg instead of hearing the shofar at Ohavi Zedek (Lovers of Justice), the synagogue near where he lives in Burlington. But that, for Bernie, would presumably have been a fib.

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