When Bernie Sanders stepped to the podium on Monday at Liberty University, he was not the most famous liberal to speak at the well-known bastion of Christian conservatism.
That title still belongs to the late Ted Kennedy, who delivered an address there on religious tolerance 32 years ago at the invitation of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the founder of both Liberty Baptist College (as it was then known) and the nation’s ascendant “moral majority.” Kennedy’s appearance in Lynchburg was even more surprising at the time; while he was the bête noire of conservatives during the Reagan era, he was three years removed from his presidential run and had already decided not to seek the White House in 1984.
Despite their reputations as Democratic partisans, both politicians were received warmly by the student crowd. Kennedy broke the ice by opening with a series of jokes about the unlikely invitation from Falwell. (He invited Falwell to deliver the invocation at the inauguration “of the next Democratic president” in 1985, and he quipped that in exchange for Falwell allowing the Liberty students “an extra hour before curfew on Saturday night,” he had agreed to watch the reverend’s “gospel hour” on Sunday morning.)
Below is Falwell’s introduction and the opening of Kennedy’s speech. The full audio of the address is available here.
Falwell died in 2007, and it was his son and namesake, Jerry Falwell Jr., who introduced Sanders on Monday. The Democratic presidential upstart skipped the humor, but he had an advantage that Kennedy didn’t have: As Falwell Jr. noted, the university made room for Sanders’s supporters to sit in the front rows of the arena, giving him cheering sections that suggested, at least on video, a more enthusiastic response to his speech than might have been the case.
In substance, the speeches were most similar in what Kennedy and Sanders chose not to do: Neither liberal tried to persuade the conservative crowd of the wisdom of abortion rights or gay rights. They each acknowledged their differences, extolled the importance of preaching beyond the choir, and then turned to topics where they believed they might find common ground. Yet the two liberal-in-the-lion’s-den speeches were fascinating as reflections of two particular and divergent political moments.
In the mid-1980s, there seemed to be little dispute that Falwell’s Moral Majority was just that. With strong support from the Christian Right, Reagan won a convincing victory in 1980, and when Kennedy spoke in 1983 (the “Year of the Bible,” as declared by Reagan), the Republican was heading toward an outright electoral landslide in 1984. In that context, Kennedy’s tone bordered on the defensive. He made little attempt to win over the crowd to his issues, instead arguing merely that they should let dissenters be heard. Religious conservatives may have a majority, but no one has “a monopoly” on the truth, Kennedy insisted.
While arguing that religious institutions should weigh in on policy debates that hinge on questions of morality, Kennedy issued a reasoned defense of the separation of church and state and warned that without it, “today's Moral Majority could become tomorrow's persecuted minority.”
In short, I hope for an America where neither "fundamentalist" nor "humanist" will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of goodwill look at life and into their own souls.
I hope for an America where no president, no public official, no individual will ever be deemed a greater or lesser American because of religious doubt -- or religious belief.
I hope for an America where the power of faith will always burn brightly, but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light the fires of fear, coercion, or angry division.
I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously, but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.
Three decades later, Sanders spoke at Liberty under very different circumstances. Surging in the polls as he seeks to succeed a Democratic president, he has the political wind at his back. Religious conservatives, by contrast, have just suffered a generational defeat with the nationwide legalization of gay-marriage, and supporters of abortion rights have successfully fended off each major challenge to Roe v. Wade for 40 years.
While Sanders steered clear of those issues until the question-and-answer part of his appearance, he made a much more assertive case for liberal economic policies. Indeed, what was most notable about his speech to the conservative Liberty crowd was how little he deviated from the core message of his candidacy. Sanders sought directly to enlist the support of evangelicals in his fight against income inequality, framing his support for the poor in moral terms.
Amos 5:24, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream." Justice treating others the way we want to be treated, treating all people, no matter their race, their color, their stature in life, with respect and with dignity.
Now here is my point. Some of you may agree with me, and some of you may not, but in my view, it would be hard for anyone in this room today to make the case that the United States of America, our great country, a country which all of us love, it would be hard to make the case that we are a just society, or anything resembling a just society today.
Sanders returned to the concept of “justice” throughout his nearly 30-minute speech. “In my view, there is no justice, and morality suffers when in our wealthy country, millions of children go to bed hungry,” he said. “That is not morality and that is not in my view is not what America should be about.”
Along with other Democratic politicians, Sanders has cited approvingly the critique of financial greed by Pope Francis, and he did so again at Liberty. Kennedy, by contrast, spoke during an era when the poor were often blamed for their lot in life, and he made only a glancing reference to the idea of helping the needy as a moral imperative. “We are sometimes told that it is wrong to feed the hungry, but that mission is an explicit mandate given to us in the 25th chapter of Matthew,” he said.
Just because Sanders felt confident enough to deliver a progressive stump speech to conservatives at Liberty University doesn’t mean that he was effective in winning them over. He received enthusiastic cheers from some in the crowd of nearly 12,000 throughout his speech, but the loudest and lengthiest ovation of the appearance came not when Sanders was speaking, but when Liberty’s senior vice president, David Nasser, pressed him on whether his desire to care for the nation’s children extended to those “in the womb.” Sanders responded by appealing to the conservative belief in limited government as an argument for leaving the question of abortion to women and their doctors. It received a much more subdued reaction.
The political overlap between a liberal Democrat and the evangelicals of Liberty University may be greater in 2015 than it was in 1983, but it’s not an alliance just yet.