Senator Bernie Sanders took his message of confronting inequality to unfamiliar ground on Monday at Liberty University, a leading evangelical Christian college, where he sought to build what he called “common ground” with students, beginning with the foundations of Christianity itself: the Bible.
“I am far, far from a perfect human being, but I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions — in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions — and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12,” Mr. Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, told the crowd at a convocation. “And it states: ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’ That is the golden rule. Do to others what you would have them do to you.
“It is not very complicated,” he added.
Mr. Sanders, who is Jewish, was greeted politely by the crowd. He noted at the outset of his speech that he and the audience members would have views “on a number of important issues that are very, very different,” especially on abortion and same-sex marriage.
But he then spoke almost entirely on the issue of poverty and income inequality, borrowing from his traditional stump speech while framing the populist message within the confines of a sense of social justice and faith.
“I want all of you, if you would, to put this in the context of the Bible, not me,” Mr. Sanders, of Vermont, told the crowd of nearly 12,000 at a college where attendance at convocation is usually compulsory.
His speech was peppered with repeated calls for “morality” and “justice” when he spoke about issues that have been central to his campaign, like fighting childhood poverty and raising the minimum wage. He used the phrase “family values” when making a case for extended maternity and paid sick leave. He quoted another verse from the Bible, Amos 5:24, when calling for people of all races to be treated with “respect and with dignity.”
He saved some of his most strident remarks for discussing race and racism in a question-and-answer session after the speech.
Speaking about America in response to a question on race and racism, he said: “I would also say that as a nation, the truth is, that a nation which in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back on racist principles, that’s a fact. We have come a long way as a nation.”
Over all, he said he hoped that these calls for “justice” would rise above the divisions surrounding social issues.
“That’s the main point I was trying to make, that morality is more than just your view on abortions or gay rights,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview after the event. “Moral issues are also hungry children. Moral issues is also the state of our planet and climate change.”
The speech played on an image Mr. Sanders has cultivated, intentionally or not, that his message aligns occasionally with the beliefs of those in religious communities. The hosts of his national organizing day rally in July, for example, described themselves as “religious conservatives,” but were drawn to Mr. Sanders because they thought his message adhered to the calls of St. Francis of Assisi and other Christian leaders to care for the poor. He often quotes Pope Francis, both on social media and in his speeches, and he did here Monday as well.
“I think it’s a message that runs throughout Judaism, runs through Islam — it runs through all religions,” Mr. Sanders said in the interview.
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