The 2016 Stump Speeches: Bernie’s Epistle to the Falwellites

[This article is part of a series on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. A previous Bernie Sanders speech was discussed here.]

I finally got around to watching Bernie Sanders’ speech to the students at Liberty University on September 14. [video, transcript]. I wasn’t as impressed as I had expected to be.

The most impressive thing is that he was there at all. Presidential candidates usually only talk to audiences of their supporters, and when they go to foreign territory it is often only so that their supporters can see them talking tough to the opposition (like Mitt Romney’s speech to the NAACP in 2012). But I think Bernie went to the center Jerry Falwell’s empire in an honest attempt to make converts, or at least to show that he wasn’t the Devil. More candidates, on both sides of the political spectrum, should show their flags in hostile territory. I’d love to see Hillary Clinton explain her views to an NRA convention, or Donald Trump speak to La Raza.

For their part, the Liberty University people treated Sanders with respect. He got a generous introduction from President Falwell — Jerry’s son — the audience did not boo or heckle, and some Sanders’ supporters from outside the university community were allowed to attend.

Sanders made an attempt to speak his audience’s language. He quoted the Golden Rule from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He quoted the verse from Amos that Martin Luther King often quoted, about justice rolling down like a river. And the rest of his speech was a litany structured around the phrase “There is no justice when …” that confronted the audience with the facts of income inequality in America.

I applaud him doing that. I think conservative Christians too often let themselves rationalize the economic process in America, without really confronting the results of that process.

But I think he made three mistakes. The first is that he gave a very traditional speech/sermon, standing at a podium with a printed text, speaking in the tone and cadence of a 19th-century orator who needs to make sure his voice carries to the back of the auditorium. Liberty University students are used to much higher production values than that. (Compare Ted Cruz’ announcement speech at the same venue, where he walks around the stage and speaks without notes, in a tone that suggests he is talking to each student individually.) Liberty is a place to give a TED talk, not a Cross of Gold speech.

Second, his message about income inequality is all statistics and no stories. As Stalin is supposed to have said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” When I read the conversion stories of people raised in the Religious Right who subsequently leave that movement, it’s never a statistic that turns them around, it’s confronting the human reality of people that their theology has written off. (In Rachel Held Evans’ memoir Evolving in Monkey Town — I think I’ve got the right source, but my memory might have shifted the story from somewhere else — she tells about being on a mission trip to China, looking out the bus window and realizing that according to her theology, all those millions of people out there are going to Hell. It’s the first time that she realizes deep down that “the Damned” aren’t minions of the Devil, they’re mostly just people trying to live their lives as best they can.)

Similarly, what I would want to get across to the Liberty students is the human reality of poverty in America, the fact that many poor people are already doing the best they can, and that they don’t need a lecture about values and character, they need help. That is best communicated in stories. Then you can bring in statistics and argue that they need help on a scale that individual charity can’t give, a scale that nothing but government is big enough to provide.

And only then should you reach beyond the giving-help idea, and ask why our system produces so many people who need so much help. Could we organize society differently, so that more people could succeed with less help?

Finally, while I give him credit for submitting to a Q&A at the end, he didn’t seem very well prepared for the obvious question: Why does he talk so much about protecting our society’s children, but not want the government to protect the unborn?

What he says is not bad as far as it goes: He points out the inconsistency of wanting a small government that will stay out of people’s personal lives, but also wanting that government to regulate pregnancy. But that attack on the conservative position doesn’t defend the consistency of his own views. He also doesn’t confront the question on the religious/political grounds from which it came.

Here’s what I would say: Our society and our laws recognize that something makes a human life different than an animal life, so that killing a human is murder, while killing a cow or pig is just agriculture. That difference is not something you can point to on an ultrasound — that humans have hearts or feel pain — because animals have all the same organs and suffer just like we do. For most of a pregnancy, most of us would be hard pressed to tell the difference between an ultrasound of a human fetus and a chimpanzee fetus.

Religions talk about this ineffable something as a soul, but throughout history religions have had different teachings about when the soul enters the body. Jesus doesn’t talk about the issue in any records we have, but in his day just about everyone believed the soul entered the body at the quickening, the time when a woman first feels her fetus move in the womb. Some religious leaders have taught it happened later, even as late as the first breath, as the Bible describes in Genesis 2:7. More recently, many denominations have begun to teach that the soul enters the body at conception.

A basic American principle that goes back to the Founders is that the federal government should not be adjudicating theological disputes, or taking the side of one sect against another. This is a principle whose value I think we can all see, because as satisfying as it might feel sometimes to imagine the government imposing our theology on everyone else, it would be so much worse to have the government impose somebody else’s theology on us.

That’s why I believe decisions about abortion should be made not by legislators or bureaucrats, but by individual women and their families, in consultation with the medical and spiritual advisers they choose.

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Comments

  • NSandlady3@aol.com  On October 5, 2015 at 7:52 am

    why do they talk about protecting the unborn and then not protect them after they’re born??????

  • sherrynadair  On October 5, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Why the hell don’t you run! We wait for Mondays with bated breath… you’re amazing!

  • Josh  On October 5, 2015 at 10:11 am

    If you apply for a job working on strategy or speeches for the Sanders campaign and they ask you for references, please feel free to give them my name.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On October 5, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    I was quite impressed with Senator Sanders foray into Falwell land. With a spirit of ‘let’s figure out ways in which we might agree and work together’, Bernie gave a persuasive argument about “morality” and how we do or do not operationalize that morality in terms of income inequality… (see e.g., https://clyp.it/eusxalwe for a Liberty University’s graduate’s perspective on this). To me, he did not come across as judgmental/attacking or defensive. He was confrontational in a respectful and positive sense in that he made observations and invited his audience to reflect on them. His response re: abortion was similar in spirit. He acknowledged different views matter-of-factly and then discussed areas of potential overlap in terms of similar viewpoints and working together.

  • joeirvin  On October 5, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Jeff Rosenberg, thanks for the Clyp link. That is something I’ve long thought.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On October 5, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    You’re welcome, Joe. It’s a shame that that Clyp link got overshadowed by a 14 year-old Texas kid making a clock!

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