One polite, calm political story: Bernie Sanders welcomed at Liberty University

Talk about a cross-cultural event.

No, I am not talking about the fact that Sen. Bernard Sanders spoke at a convocation at Liberty University, which must have been educational both for the speaker and for those in the congregation. I'm talking about the efforts of mainstream reporters to cover this unlikely scene early in the race for the White House.

If you watch the video of the Sanders speech, it is pretty apparent that the socialist from Vermont did his homework and was prepared to seek -- as best he could -- common ground with faculty, students and staff on the campus founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. And reporters, as a rule, did a solid job of handling what Sanders had to say.

What I found interesting were the journalistic attempts, or the lack thereof, to interact with the locals. Take this early passage from the coverage in Roll Call:

Before Sanders entered the campus’ Vine Center to an introduction by Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr., a campus band played Christian rock songs about the resurrection, including one with the refrain: “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back. No turning back.” Not the typical introduction for a Jewish socialist from Vermont during Rosh Hashanah.
Unlike when conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas appeared at the same venue earlier this year to launch his Republican White House bid, there were no real disruptions for outbursts of applause or standing ovations. But neither were there abundant boos or signs of ridicule.
“For me personally, it wasn’t very awkward,” said sophomore engineering student Joe Sobchinsky. “I actually was very happy that Bernie Sanders was coming because college is supposed to be about learning different viewpoints, and even if you don’t agree with someone, I would absolutely listen to them and hear what he has to say, hear his viewpoints.”

There's quite a bit of background in that passage. However, I think it was interesting that the reporter thought "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus" was some kind of trendy "Christian rock song," since that folk hymn from India originated in the 19th Century and became popular at crusades led by the Rev. Billy Graham in the 1950s.

But, hey, like I said, this was a cross-cultural experience for everyone involved. For elite political reporters, this must have been like visiting an exotic foreign land.

I will also give credit to Roll Call for focusing, right up top, on the intriguing answer Sanders offered in response to a question on abortion. Pay close attention on this one:

Sen. Bernard Sanders received a cordial welcome at Liberty University, even if the independent from Vermont seeking the Democratic presidential nomination faced a crowd where the most raucous applause came when he was asked why his concerns for children didn’t extend to those in the womb.
“I do understand and I do believe that it is improper for the United States government or state government to tell every woman in this country the very painful and difficult choice that she has to make on that issue, and I honestly, without being too provocative here, but very often conservatives say you know, ‘Get the government out of my life. I don’t want the government telling me what to do,'” Sanders told an estimated crowd of 12,000. “But on this very sensitive issue … my view is I respect absolutely a family that says, ‘No, we are not going to have an abortion.’ I understand that, I respect that, but I would hope that other people respect the very painful and difficult choice that the women feel they have to make.”

So the socialist tried to go libertarian conservative when speaking to an audience of populist cultural conservatives? Bravo to Roll Call for catching that.

Interesting. I would think that this exchange will lead to some interesting discussions in political science classes at Liberty in the days ahead, which might be worth a follow-up story. As a pro-life Democrat, may I note that it would have been interesting if someone had asked him why he consistently defends the use of constructive government power to protect the rights of the needy and defenseless, but not, as Pope Francis keeps noting, the most needy and defenseless humans among us -- the unborn?

This would be a good time to recommend, to journalists and others, the classic 1995 George McKenna essay in The Atlantic entitled "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position." This piece always provokes interesting discussions when I assign it to students who are covering political and debates about divisive social issues. It's a classic piece that shows the limits to simplistic labels.

Most of the mainstream coverage of this event focused, as it should, on the ways in which Sanders tried to reach out to his audience -- primarily through scripture. I thought this section of the Associated Press report was quite effective:

Sanders said he was "far from a perfect human being" but was motivated by the vision of the religious teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The senator was raised in a Jewish family and is non-observant but his campaign said he planned to stop at a Rosh Hashanah gathering Monday at the home of Michael Gillette, Lynchburg's mayor.
Pointing to Scripture, Sanders cited the "Golden Rule" of Matthew's Gospel as a guiding principle to treat others as you would like to be treated. At another point, he told students the book of Amos said, "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream."
As the U.S. prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis, Sanders said he agreed with the pope's views that the financial crisis "originated in a profound human crisis" that saw too many people place a greater emphasis on the pursuit of wealth than faith.

The New York Times story, in particular, seemed remarkably tame, in terms of reporting the unusual context for this political speech. The Washington Post? You can skip this one.

Part of the news, after all, was that Sanders was invited to speak at Liberty in the first place. Or did he make the offer and the university accept it? Either way, this encounter was interesting in and of itself.

It was also crucial that Sanders was, apparently, welcomed with great respect -- much like the welcome Falwell and Liberty offered the Sen. Ted Kennedy back in 1983.

The Times noted these interesting reactions:

“Calling on us to help the neediest, that resonates with me as a Christian,” said Quincy Thompson, the student body president, who had a chance to briefly meet Mr. Sanders after the event. “But as a Christian, I think the responsibility to help them falls to the church, not the government.” ... 
And Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the university, which was founded by his father, seemed to echo a similar statement of recognizing the issues, but differing on the solutions.
“I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said that the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money,” Mr. Falwell said in an interview after the event, making the case that he thought working toward a limited government and lowering taxes would “create the tide that rises all ships.” But he still found areas on which he agreed with Mr. Sanders.
“We have the same goals, helping people in need, we just have different philosophies on how to get there,” he said.

All in all, this appears to have been a calm and constructive event. Would the press have found a similar exchange if Sen. Marco Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz had been invited to speak to an all-but-mandatory assembly at, let's say, Wellesley College or the University of Vermont?

Just asking.

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