- REUTERS/Dominick Reuter
US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is asking young religious conservatives to forget about their opposition to gay marriage and abortion and focus on income inequality.
In an occasionally tense event Monday, Sanders took his stump speech, which has helped him surge in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, to Liberty University, a Christian school that’s a hub for conservative politics.
The school was founded by controversial pastor Jerry Falwell, who is largely credited with using social issues to galvanize the religious right.
US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) launched his presidential campaign with a speech at the university. Sanders is the first Democratic candidate in the 2016 cycle to speak at Liberty University, which invites all presidential candidates to address its students.
On Monday, before launching into his standard speech about inequality and injustice that has galvanized huge crowds across the country, Sanders said religious voters should not tune out his message simply because he holds different positions on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
“I understand that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are very important to you and that we disagree on those issues. I get that,” Sanders said, according to prepared remarks. “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.”
The event was occasionally tense.
When the Liberty University moderator talked about his opposition to abortion, he received a standing ovation. For his part, Sanders took it in stride.
“I don’t want to be too provocative here, but very often conservatives say, ‘Get the government out of my life,'” Sanders responded.
“I respect absolutely a family that says, ‘No, we are not going to have an abortion.’ I understand that. But I would hope that other people respect the very painful and difficult choice that many women feel they have to make, and don’t want the government telling them what they have to do,” he added.
Requesting that the audience “put this in the context of the Bible,” the self-described Democratic socialist repeatedly acknowledged the differences between his political views and those of his audience.
“I believe that it is important for those with different views in our country to engage in civil discourse – not just to shout at each other or make fun of each other,” Sanders said, according to the prepared remarks. “It is very easy for those in politics to talk to those who agree with us. I do that every day. It is harder, but not less important, to try to communicate with those who do not agree with us.”
Some students at Liberty, who were required to attend Monday’s speech as part of a weekly convocation, seemed to think Sanders’ strategy of setting social issues aside could help the senator win over the conservative crowd. One student told Business Insider that Sanders’ opinions about the income inequality could resonate with some in the audience.
“There’s an appetite for a certain aspect of Sanders’ message. The overall tone may not be a huge hit here, but if he talks about justice reform, that will probably get large applause. Liberty is very justice-centered,” the student said.
But it’s unclear if conservative religious voters could look past Sanders’ views on social issues. Evangelical voters still vehemently oppose abortion to an overwhelming degree, and religious voters have been rallying around Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was briefly jailed earlier this month after her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses in Kentucky.
Sanders tailored his speech to fit the crowd, focusing on moral and family issues. Sanders’ call for 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for a new child, for example, received slightly warmer applause from the audience.
The student who spoke to Business Insider noted that the audience wouldn’t respond well to Sanders’ positions on social issues if he made it a major theme of his speech.
“If he talks about gay marriage and abortion more than what was in the excerpt, then he’ll lose the majority of the crowd very quickly,” the student added.
Brett LoGiurato contributed reporting.