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Sanders Takes His Liberal Message To An Evangelical Christian College


Yesterday's campaign appearance by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was more than a stunt. His talk at Liberty University spoke to the purpose of Sanders' unexpectedly strong campaign. In an NPR interview last fall, the socialist, now seeking the Democratic nomination, spoke of attracting new voters. He wanted to build a coalition on economic issues, including people who had left the Democratic Party, which explains why his insurgent campaign came to a conservative Evangelical university. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: All of the presidential candidates have been invited to speak at Liberty University's convocation. Ted Cruz announced he was running for president at one earlier this year. Scott Walker and Ben Carson will be visiting this fall. But Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, is the first candidate on the left side of the political spectrum to accept.


BERNIE SANDERS: It is harder but not less important for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.

KEITH: And there were two issues he identified where he didn't expect to get much support from the crowd - abortion and same-sex marriage.


SANDERS: We disagree on those issues. I get that.

KEITH: But when it came to his core issue of income inequality, he invoked scripture - twice - and quoted the pope, hoping to find common ground with the students. Sanders framed social and economic justice as a matter of morality.


SANDERS: I want you to go into your hearts. How can we talk about morality, about justice when we turn our backs on the children of our country?

KEITH: The response was muted. In an arena with nearly 12,000 students, a couple of hundred, mostly non-students, cheered at his usual applause lines. The Liberty students sat politely during Sanders' speech. After it was over, the school's senior vice president for spiritual development, David Nasser, asked Sanders a few questions that had been submitted by students.


DAVID NASSER: Sen. Sanders, you've talked in your campaign about how it is immoral to protect the billionaire class at the expense of our most vulnerable in society - obviously children. A majority of Christians would agree with you but would also go further and say that children in the womb need our protection even more.


KEITH: And that was the loudest applause of the morning. The question got a standing ovation.


NASSER: You can see this is what they want to ask (laughter).

SANDERS: Well, it's...

NASSER: This is what's on our - how do you reconcile the two? And...

KEITH: Sanders' answers - he doesn't think the government should be getting involved in that very difficult choice faced by women. I asked student Ben Perry about the abortion question moment.

BEN PERRY: Kind of watched everybody stand up for that one. I definitely think that abortion shouldn't be allowed really, especially if you watch the Planned Parenthood videos that came out. That just make you squirm. It's terrible.

KEITH: For sophomore Jay Brooks, some of what Sanders' said about the suffering of the less fortunate resonated. But Brooks doesn't think government is the solution.

JAY BROOKS: I differ on a lot of issues with him, and so, no, I don't believe that I will vote for him. But it was great to find common ground. I'm going to be praying for him, that he would just be a wise leader.

KEITH: His friend, Connor Carew, came in skeptical and left unconvinced but grateful for the chance to see Sanders speak at his conservative Christian college.

CONNOR CAREW: And to be able to do so, I guess, to a crowd that you know a majority probably disagrees with some of your points, definitely speaks to the fact that, yeah, wow, like, he might disagree with us, but this guy's got a - definitely has intestinal fortitude.

KEITH: In other words, they respected his chutzpah. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Lynchburg, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.