The Sanders speech at Liberty U: Did it lead to any debates on that campus?

So gentle readers, raise your hands if you are already tired of the numbingly predicable acts of political theater that are being called "debates." 

My hand is way up. I realize that the CNN ratings were really high for the recent GOP gabfest, but that doesn't mean that -- other than in their opening statements -- the candidates actually said much that would help citizens grasp their stands on real issues.

But something did happen the other day that served as a brief ray of sunshine in national political discourse. I am referring to the visit that Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont made to Liberty University. It isn't every day that a self-proclaimed socialist, and secular Jew, pops in to speak during convocation at one of America's most symbolic evangelical -- or even small "f" fundamentalist -- universities, one founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

I wrote a GetReligion post about some of the coverage of the Sanders speech and it also provided the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune in on that.

During that podcast, I wondered if Sanders asked to speak there or if Liberty leaders asked him to speak in convocation. As it turns out, it was Liberty that -- to its credit -- extended the invitation. Bravo for that invitation and for the candidate's decision to accept it.

As you would expect, the text of the Sanders speech -- click here for The Washington Post annotated version of that -- was packed with biblical references making a case for common ground on issues of economic and social justice. He also was very blunt in stating that he hoped for civil discourse on these matters, even though he completely disagreed with Liberty, and traditional Christian doctrine in general, on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

However, I thought that the most interesting moment came in the question-and-answer session when the candidate was asked (this inquiry drew a wave of applause) why his concerns for children didn’t extend to those in the womb. In other words, Sanders was asked why his strong, liberal support for strong government actions, in defense of the week and the needy, did not extend to those whom Pope Francis would call the most defenseless and needy persons in our world, the unborn, especially the unborn children of the poor.

You just know that, out in the audience, there were Liberty political science professors thinking: "This could get interesting."

Sanders replied: “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. ... 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.”

In other words, Sanders played the libertarian conservative, individual rights card to an audience of cultural and moral conservatives.

Stop and think about that. This was a moment in which there was chance for genuine dialogue and insight, with a true liberal who favors strong government powers to protect the weak and the defenseless briefly opening himself up to questions about why he opposes government actions to protect the unborn. At the same time, you had Christian conservatives -- who are used to thinking of government power in strictly negative terms -- being asked to think about the logical implications of their calls for government actions that would limit the personal freedoms of pregnant women who want abortions.

In the podcast, I wondered if Sanders' answer may have led to discussions in Liberty classrooms about this up is down, down is up clash, this chance for an earthquake in conventional wisdom.

Now, some readers may be wondering why is there a picture, at the top of this post, of the famous debates -- real debates -- between Abraham Lincoln and  Stephen A. Douglas.

During our "Crossroads" conversation, I mentioned the famous 1995 essay in The Atlantic entitled "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position." It was written by political scientist George McKenna, who taught for decades at the City University of New York, and at the time of publication it caused quite a stir with its argument that -- when push comes to shove -- it should be easier for liberals to take a pro-life stance than for many conservatives. McKenna also predicted that debates over abortion and, for example, government funding for groups such as Planned Parenthood, would not vanish in the future, as many were predicting. Why?

The obvious answer is that abortion is troubling because it is a killing process. Abortion clinics may indeed be places of "healing and care," as the Planned Parenthood counselor maintains, but their primary purpose is to kill human fetuses. Whether those fetuses are truly "persons" will continue to be debated by modern scholastics, but people keep blurting out fragments of what was long a moral consensus in this country. Once in a while even a newscaster, carefully schooled in Sprachregelungen, will slip up by reporting the murder of "a woman and her unborn baby," thus implying that something more than a single homicide has taken place. But that "something" must not be probed or examined; the newscaster must not speak its name. Abortion has thus come to occupy an absurd, surrealistic place in the national dialogue: It cannot be ignored and it cannot be openly stated. It is the corpse at the dinner party.

In terms of history, this essay focused on the pro-choice language that Douglas used to justify the legality of slavery, with its emphasis on "religious" questions about whether slaves were "persons" worthy of protection. His use of "popular sovereignty" as a justification for slavery remaining legal was similar to what, several generations later, would on other topics be called arguments based on "states' rights."

Thus, McKenna noted: 

Looking back today on Douglas's words ... one is struck by how sophisticated and "modern" they seem. He ruled out of order any debate on the morality of slavery. That was a "religious" question. It had no place in a constitutional debate, and we had no right to judge other people in such terms. In one of his debates with Lincoln in 1858, Douglas scolded his opponent for telling the people in the slave states that their institution violated the law of God. "Better for him," he said, to cheers and applause, "to adopt the doctrine of `judge not lest ye be judged.'"
Douglas tried to evade the force of these observations by insisting that he didn't care what was chosen; all he cared about was the freedom to choose.

McKenna included, in his article, a draft of some language that he proposed could be used by American politicians brave enough to be as blunt and strategic, when talking about abortion, as Lincoln was in his rhetoric on slavery. McKenna even noted Hillary Clinton's recent statement that abortion is "a bad thing."

What if Sanders had said the following at Liberty? What if Joe Biden said this?

"According to the Supreme Court, the right to choose abortion is legally protected. That does not change the fact that abortion is morally wrong. It violates the very first of the inalienable rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence -- the right to life. Even many who would protect and extend the right to choose abortion admit that abortion is wrong, and that killing 1.5 million unborn children a year is, in the understated words of one, `a bad thing.' Yet, illogically, they denounce all attempts to restrain it or even to speak out against it. In this campaign I will speak out against it. I will say what is in all our hearts: that abortion is an evil that needs to be restricted and discouraged. If elected, I will not try to abolish an institution that the Supreme Court has ruled to be constitutionally protected, but I will do everything in my power to arrest its further spread and place it where the public can rest in the belief that it is becoming increasingly rare. I take very seriously the imperative, often expressed by abortion supporters, that abortion should be rare. Therefore, if I am elected, I will seek to end all public subsidies for abortion, for abortion advocacy, and for experiments on aborted children. I will support all reasonable abortion restrictions that pass muster with the Supreme Court, and I will encourage those who provide alternatives to abortion. Above all, I mean to treat it as a wrong. I will use the forum provided by my office to speak out against abortion and related practices, such as euthanasia, that violate or undermine the most fundamental of the rights enshrined in this nation's founding charter."

Come to think of it, what if an honest Republican -- recognizing the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court and the bitter divisions among American voters on this issue -- used that kind of language on that campus? Would taking this "Lincolnian" stance be a way to seek common ground or would partisans on both sides stand firm? 

Perhaps reporters could go back to Liberty University and see if the Sanders speech led to any interesting debates in political science, or theology, classrooms.

Enjoy the podcast.

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