“I want all of you, if you would, to put this in the context of the Bible, not me,” Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told his audience at Liberty University. Sanders, who is Jewish, pro-LGBT rights, and a self-described “democratic socialist” is not who you would picture when you think of convocation at Liberty University, a large, conservative school in Lynchburg, Virginia, started by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. But on Monday, there he was–in front of an audience of 12,000 students (and a few local supporters who joined in). And all told, having the most liberal presidential contender in America at what might be the most conservative university in the country went over surprisingly well.
Importantly, convocation is different from chapel, the former being a colloquium on matters of faith or the day and the latter being a medium of Biblical instruction and exhortation. Nonetheless, Liberty’s convocation lineup is reliably conservative; this year they’ve hosted or are scheduled to host Republican Presidential contender Scott Walker, Fox News’s Gretchen Carlson, and Korie and Sadie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame. Liberty invites all presidential candidates to address their student body at convocation, but most Democratic candidates decline to make the stop.
Sanders opened his speech searching for common ground. “You are a school which, as all of us in our own way, tries to understand the meaning of morality,” he said. He talked about his motivations for public service, “a vision, which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam and Buddhism, and other religions.” The vision was the principle of the golden rule, which Jesus laid out in Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
This line is always good news. Regardless of religious background, if we could all get on the same page about the idea that we ought to treat other people the way we want to be treated, the world would be a better place to live than it is right now. Sanders believes that, and so do the students at Liberty. They go about it in very different ways, some of which the other considers harmful. It’s when we let that harm get in the way of our ability to hear each other that we lose our way. Sanders may not perfectly understand Christianity, but then again, neither do many of the student body of Liberty. If all truth is God’s truth, as the adage goes, we don’t need to be afraid of hearing truth from anyone, no matter how unlikely the messenger.
Not all students were happy about the visit, but at the very least they listened quietly and seemed to engage with what Sanders had to say. In a hyper-partisan political climate like ours, that’s something worth applauding.