Behind Bernie Sanders’ Appeal to the Hipster Christian Vote

He didn’t win over Liberty University’s students, but he did endear himself to some of them.

Liberty University student Evan Powell makes a sign in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders during convocation in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.  (Bloomberg AFP/Getty)

LYNCHBURG, Virginia­—Sen. Bernie Sanders didn't change anyone's minds Monday morning.

Here at Liberty University, Sanders spoke inside the same huge, white domed edifice where his Senate colleague, Ted Cruz, announced his presidential run in the spring.

It’s fair to say Sanders had a much tougher crowd than Cruz did, and his speech to Liberty’s Christian student body at Monday’s convocation (or “convo,” in local parlance) was a study in contrasts, and not just politically.

The assembly began with a 10-piece Christian rock band, headed up by the Christian rock avatars of John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, and Demi Lovato. They proved that Christian rock was not an oxymoron; not at Liberty, at least. The entire 12,000-student audience stood up for the four-song set, singing along to every word, closing their eyes and holding up hands in praise. The steadfastness of the student body’s faith was palpable, unshakeable. Put simply, they tore the roof off the joint.

Then Bernie Sanders hit the stage. Bernie Sanders, with a voice hoarse from shouting at too many crowds over the past weeks and months. Bernie Sanders, with his perpetually rumpled hair and ill-fitting slacks and his thick Brooklyn accent. Unlike the band that opened for him, Bernie Sanders did not have a message of sunny spirituality for his audience.

Though his speech was replete with references to “justice” and “morality,” Sanders’s message was more about the absence of those virtues from our society than their unmovable place in the world. It was not a feel-good speech. Bernie Sanders doesn’t really do feel-good speeches.

Unlike the social-justice crusaders you’d find on a liberal arts campus, the students at Liberty University were not very receptive to Sanders’s message of entrenched inequality and the need for the government to provide more for society’s poor and weak. The Liberty students I spoke with agreed on one aspect: He seems like a good man; he’s just a little misguided. They seemed, on the whole, a lot more receptive to Sanders than students of a similarly liberal college would be if one were to drop Ted Cruz or another GOP competitor on campus.

Cody Bright, a Liberty senior and a Jeb Bush supporter, had a Bernie Sanders sign with him under his chair. He said it was his way of saying, “Welcome to Liberty.”

“It’s good for us to hear other sides that we’ll never hear unless speakers like that come here,” Bright said, adding that he thinks Sanders makes good points about income inequality, but he disagrees with the senator on raising the minimum wage.

At $28,000 a year, Liberty’s tuition is considerable, though at least one student I talked to received free tuition because his parents are Christian missionaries. Matt Ozburn, a junior, is paying his way through school by working 35 hours a week in one of the college’s restaurants.

When asked what he thought about Sanders’s plan to subsidize all public-university tuition, Ozburn was hesitant.

“It sounds nice, but I’m not sure what that would mean in the long run for taxpayers,” he said. “Where would that leave us 10 or 15 years in the future? Would that bring us into more debt?”

Skepticism aside, some students were genuinely enthusiastic about having Sanders on campus. Of 15 students interviewed for this story, two said they could see themselves voting for him.

Kay Mello, a junior, said right now she would vote for either Sanders or Dr. Ben Carson.

“Those are my two options right now,” she said. “With the other candidates, they’re more concerned about other politicians, and all they care about is the 1 percent.”

Despite the lukewarm reception that Sanders received, some students still said they liked him more than one candidate: Hillary Clinton. One trio of students went so far as to say they’d rather see Sanders as the Democratic nominee.

Mello said the email controversy has made Clinton less trustworthy. Paige Seiger, a senior, said she supports Carson for president but would rather see Sanders win than Clinton “by far,” if it came down to that.

“Hillary’s a liar,” Seiger said. “She said that nobody ever issued her a subpoena, and Trey Gowdy was like, ‘I literally have the subpoena that I issued her back in March.’”

Taylor Benavidez, a senior, said Sanders’s consistency and experience put him higher in her esteem than Clinton.

“He’s definitely a better bet for the Democratic ballot than Hillary would be,” she said. “Bernie has a much stronger and more consistent track record than Hillary has had.”

Other students disagreed with Sanders’s policy ideas, but thought his heart was in the right place.

“I do agree with him about the economic issues about our country, and that there should be more wealth distributed around the country,” Janine Faulkner, a junior, said. “A lot of Christians, when you go down to the core of our beliefs and how we want this country to be portrayed and just morality, that it goes down to kids not living in poverty and everyone having enough food and provisions left to eat.”

Ciara Perkins, who graduated from Liberty last spring and came back to her alma mater to see Sanders, said his stances on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage shouldn’t disqualify him from students’ minds.

“A lot of Liberty students, and a lot of Christians in general, need to figure out that just because you don’t think something’s right doesn’t mean that the other people don’t have a right to do it,” she said.

Sanders took a chance when he took the stage on Monday, and the student body largely treated him as gracious hosts. It’s hard to see Clinton pulling off a similar performance—both because of her own reticence to take political risks, and because of her unique ability to polarize whatever room she walks into. Unlike Clinton, Sanders can play off the goofball socialist grandpa character he’s been playing in one form or another for his entire political career. And while the students at Liberty weren’t won over, they weren’t threatened by him either.

As of this semester, Liberty students are allowed to skip one convocation per semester. And judging by the turnout on Monday, very few of them used their skips on Sanders.