On Monday, Bernie Sanders sought to reach across the political chasm that divides liberal America from evangelical conservatives. At Liberty University in southern Virginia, the Vermont senator spoke to Christian students, urging them to find common ground with him on issues of poverty and social injustice.
Quoting from the Bible in front of a crowd of 12,000, the closest challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination claimed soaring income inequality was a moral issue that should transcend traditional political divides.
“When we talk about morality and when we talk about justice, we have to understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he said. “I want you to go into your hearts: how can we talk about justice when we turn our backs on the children of our country?”
The speech was received politely, but other than among a small group of vocal supporters from other local colleges, it was met with almost total silence by the majority of students who had packed into the campus arena for their weekly “convocation”.
“It’s an evangelical Christian university, the largest one in the world, that’s just expected,” said Matt Ozburn, a 20-year-old Liberty student from Atlanta. “It’s not like a bad thing, it’s just the way it is. If you went to Harvard or Yale, you wouldn’t have the biggest conservative base there, so it’s just the opposite.”
Similar gatherings at Liberty, which was set up in the 1970s by the televangelist Jerry Falwell, have become a proving ground for more conservative Republicans such as Ted Cruz. The Texas senator announced his candidacy for the 2016 presidential election here last March.
Students are required to attend, although they may skip one convocation per term for personal reasons. The event began with prayers and Christian rock.
Sanders, who accepted the invitation before seeing the surprise surge in popularity that has recently put him ahead of Clinton in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, hopes to demonstrate that his focus on economic inequality and the corrupting power of Wall Street can resonate with some Republican voters too.
“There is no justice when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires while, at the same time, the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty,” he said, before quoting from Matthew 7:12 and its passage urging “do to others what you would have them to do to you”.
The 74-year-old, who has one of the most liberal voting records in the US Senate, also implored the crowd to put aside their disagreements with him on social issues.
“I understand that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are very important to you and that we disagree on those issues,” he began.
“I get that. But let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and the world and that maybe, just maybe, we don’t disagree on them. And maybe, just maybe, we can work together in trying to resolve them.”
Nevertheless, a question on abortion came up immediately after the speech and some in the crowd said it was a point of difference they could not overlook.
“I did not personally agree with the views that he had but that’s because I am a Christian Republican,” said Karis Hicks, a 19-year-old sophomore. “I am pro-life. I believe children in the womb should be protected.”
Nonetheless, several students who spoke to the Guardian said the most important part of the speech was Sanders’ call to for political opponents to “engage in more civil discourse”.
“It is important for us as Christians to hear the views of people who we don’t agree in,” said Hicks. “I think it was a great opportunity for all of us to be a light to him and share the gospel, and I hope that all of us here love the Lord and though we share different views, we all believe in the same God.”
Logan Price, 19, added: “I was concerned if we were to attack him, would he attack us? He gained respect, but I don’t know he necessarily convinced people of things.”
Sanders responded to the abortion question by urging Christian conservatives to look at the condition of children who have been born, pointing to high rates of childhood poverty and the paucity of educational chances for those facing high student tuition fees.
But even his call for free public college tuition was met with scepticism among the young crowd.
“There is a lot of income inequality and those issues need to be addressed,” said Matt Ozburn. “It all sounds good, but I don’t know how [it works] in the long run.
“Let’s take free college, for example. I would love that. But in the long run how would that affect the national debt and would it really work?”
Those few Sanders supporters who attended from outside Liberty seemed more impressed.
“I was of course noticing some of the tension in the room, but I think he made some good points,” said Nicolette Mann, of Longwood University in nearby Farmville.
“There is a lot more ground that we can all be unified on, and we shouldn’t focus on the two points we always disagree on.
“There wasn’t a lot of cheering, but you could see a lot of hands clapping, people nodding [at the passages on justice and fairness] because it’s one of the main values of the Bible.
“I used to be a Christian, but I met a lot of people with opposing viewpoints when I went to college and realised that my view was just due to my circumstances.”
This article titled “Bernie Sanders’ appeal to Christian students met with polite scepticism” was written by Dan Roberts in Lynchburg, Virginia, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th September 2015 19.40 UTC