Bernie Sanders' Christian encounter at Liberty

Campaign 2016 | College students offer a winsome alternative to presidential candidate’s socialist message
by Jamie Dean
Posted 9/15/15, 02:30 pm

LYNCHBURG, Va.—In the moments before Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., preached a socialist message of wealth redistribution to thousands of Christian students at Liberty University on Monday, a school official offered a quick update on a needy student.

During announcements, David Nasser, senior vice president for spiritual development, said they had prayed at a recent convocation for a particularly bright student struggling to make fall tuition, despite maintaining a high GPA and working hard at a pizza chain.

Nasser’s update: Students responded by donating to her college account, giving so much she had a $7,000 surplus. She plans to give the extra money to other students in need.

Here was voluntary, faith-based wealth distribution, straight out of the New Testament book of Acts.

It was a telling moment in a fascinating morning at Liberty, where Sanders was the only Democratic presidential candidate who has accepted the school’s invitation to address students at one of its mandatory convocations.

By visiting Liberty, Sanders, a self-declared socialist polling ahead of Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, punctuated his differences with Clinton’s struggling campaign—Sanders engages tough audiences, while Clinton retreats. (Clinton’s campaign has grown infamous for staging friendly interactions with preselected voters and avoiding reporters’ questions.)

Sanders’ message at Liberty stuck with his usual talking points, but offered a biblical twist. The candidate called on students to pursue justice for others, based on Jesus’ teaching on the Golden Rule and lesson from the book of Amos.

Christians agree with Sanders on the importance of helping the needy, but instead of the church, Sanders wants the U.S. government to fill that role. The Wall Street Journal estimates his plans for universal healthcare, free tuition at public colleges, and other massive programs would cost $18 trillion.

But perhaps the most interesting dynamic was watching Sanders, a “not particularly religious” secular Jew, attend morning worship with thousands of energetic, evangelical college students.

Without preaching a word, one song offered a full narrative of the Christian faith: Students belted the lyrics from “In Christ Alone,” singing, “’Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. …”

Another song had students singing an ancient Christian creed: “I believe in God our Father / I believe in Christ the Son / I believe in the Holy Spirit / Our God is three in one.”

From a spot near the back of the stage, Sanders stood and listened quietly, hands folded in front of him, occasionally sipping from a bottle of water.

But the candidate seemed to have paid attention to the Christian creed. After thanking Liberty for the invitation to speak, he quickly acknowledged Christians disagree with him on important issues and declared his own creed of sorts.

“I believe in women’s rights and the rights of a woman to control her own body,” Sanders said. “I believe in gay rights and gay marriage. Those are my beliefs, and it is no secret.”

Students listened respectfully to Sanders—no booing or heckling, but mostly subdued quiet. And Liberty staffers reserved a section of seats at the front of the stadium for a group of Sanders supporters.

After his 30-minute speech, the candidate agreed to answer questions from students. Nasser told him the most-submitted question was about abortion: If Sanders wants to protect vulnerable children, why not the unborn?

Sanders said abortion was “a painful and difficult decision” for a mother, but the government shouldn’t interfere. He didn’t respond to the query about the children involved.

Still, the atmosphere remained respectful on both sides, and Nasser concluded by asking Sanders how they could pray for him. Sanders asked the group to pray for a unified nation and a country where people had the healthcare they needed and childhood poverty was eradicated.

It was essentially a cry for the kind of world described in Amos 9:13-15:

“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed … I will restore the fortunes of My people … and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them.’”

It’s the kind of world Christians pursue in shadows in this life, but that’s only completely fulfilled in the life to come—a new heaven and a new earth where Christ and His followers dwell.

As the morning ended, Nasser did pray for the nation, as well for as Sanders and his family, but he also thanked God “that when government fails, your kingdom prevails.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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