Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Monday went to a pillar of the religious right – Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. – to make the case that fighting for economic justice is as moral an undertaking as such cornerstone issues for Christian conservatives as opposing abortion.
"It would, I think, be hard for anyone in this room to make the case that the United States today is a just society or anything close to a just society," he said in his speech to a packed convocation at the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, known for forming the Moral Majority political organization and leading its fervent crusades against gay rights, reproductive choice and other progressive positions on social issues. "There is no justice when the top one-tenth of 1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. There is no justice when all over this country people are working longer hours for lower wages, while 58 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent."
Nor is there justice, he said, when "low-income and working-class mothers are forced to be separated from their new babies one or two weeks after giving birth" because "the United States is the only major country on earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave," or when "thousands of people in this country die each year because they don’t have health insurance and don’t get to a doctor when they should."
"I am not a theologian or an expert on the Bible or a Catholic," he said at one point. "I am just a U.S. senator from the small state of Vermont. But I agree with Pope Francis when he says, 'The current financial crisis… originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.'”
Sanders early in his address quoted the words of Jesus Christ in the gospel of Matthew (as rendered in the New International Version, a Bible translation popular with conservatives): "So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." He closed with a challenge to students seeking to discern how to apply that scripture and other themes of the Gospel to their political engagement: "I would hope very much that as part of that discussion and part of that learning process, some of you will conclude that, if we are honest in striving to be a moral and just society, it is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people, and when necessary, take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed, in my view, is doing this country enormous harm."
In a question-and-answer session afterward, Liberty University Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser sought to show common ground with Sanders on making eradicating the vestiges of racism and racial inequality from the society a top priority. But when Nasser quoted presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in saying that racism "is a sin problem, not a skin problem," Sanders reminded him that it took a Supreme Court, a civil rights movement and "public policy" to end segregation and lay the groundwork for improved race relations.
Sanders also challenged people who fight for "the protection of the unborn" to join him in the fight against threats to the already-born as a result of budget decisions being made by Republicans in Congress, such as proposals that he said would cause 27 million people to lose access to health care, cut billions of dollars in foods assistance to low-income families and cut funding for college aid for low-income students by $90 billion – while giving $250 billion in tax relief over the next 10 years to the top 0.2 percent of wealth holders.
"I don't think that's a moral budget," he said.