Bernie Sanders took the podium at Liberty University’s convocation today, and that in and of itself is noteworthy. It is not easy to take the stage in front of thousands of people, the majority of which most likely fundamentally disagree with you and do not support you. On the other hand, what do you have to lose? More so, it does promote bipartisan conversation, which I believe to be a major frustration of the American people. There appears to be too many political games being played in Washington, and at least I may be able to speak for people in my own generation when I say that we respect bipartisan collaboration on important political issues. As Sanders recognized, there are important differences of opinion on same-sex marriage and abortion, but he suggested that “there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and in fact to the entire world that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on; and maybe, just maybe, we can work together to resolve them.” This is the tone that I believe many Americans are hungry for – a voice and tone that commits to being serious about political issues. Whatever you can say about Bernie Sanders, you must concede that he is set on tackling the highlighted issues of his campaign, especially income inequality.
It was no surprise that Sanders talked mostly about the economy and income inequality – this has been the token issue for his campaign – but it was interesting how Sanders sought to appeal to this issue at Liberty by framing that topic as an issue of justice and morality.
Sanders began, “You are a school which as all of us in our own way tries to understand the meaning of morality. What does it mean to live a moral life? And you try to understand in this very complicated modern world that we live in what the words of the Bible mean in today’s society. You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings; and I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.”
Sanders then continued to note his motivation, his vision, for what he does as a public servant, admitting his imperfections. It is a motivation that he identified as a vision that exists in all of the great religions – in “Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, in Buddhism, and other religions.” He then stated that this vision is stated in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” It is the uncomplicated golden rule. He also called for justice for all people, citing Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
He essentially summarized that injustice exists in the United States in the form of income inequality; and that Christians should put this injustice “in the context of the Bible” and treat it as a moral and ethical issue. “I am not a theologian. I am not an expert on the Bible. Nor am I a Catholic. I am just a United States Senator from the small state of Vermont. But I agree with Pope Francis…when he says, ‘the current financial crises 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 agreed that economical issues are tied up in ethical issues. He noted that the United States has a problem with worshiping and serving money and wealth.
Senator Sanders essentially concluded by calling the Liberty students to fight income inequality within their discussions of justice and morality. He closed, “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.”
As a Christian and Liberty University alum, I agree with Senator Sanders that Christians should view the economy (and all political issues at that) through the lens of morality, ethics, and justice. It is an injustice that in America the top one-tenth of the top 1% owns just as much wealth as the bottom 90%. I agree; and I agree that Christians should be motivated to stand with the poor and fight against greed and the idolatry of wealth. Christians have too often compartmentalized politics, categorizing only certain issues as moral issues, and then siding on every issue with that party that upholds those categorized moral issues. It is also once again the product of polarized politics, where you are either a republican or a democrat, and whichever party you choose assigns you a position for every issue.
All in all, that was my initial reaction to Sanders’ speech at Liberty: although we have differences of opinion on major issues, we should still have bipartisan discussions on solutions to the major problems facing our nation. Yes, although we disagree on same-sex marriage, let us talk about a solution to race relations in this country. Yes, although we disagree on abortion, let us talk about a solution to the high costs of college in this country. For all intensive political purposes, we ought to have discussions with those people whom we disagree.
Now, I still have one major problem with Bernie Sanders’ speech at Liberty: he sought an appeal to a broad morality, lacking in the essential appeal to the essence of Christianity, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it resulted in inconsistency.
Throughout his speech he continually appealed to Christian morality and sought to use that as a motivation for Christians to fight income inequality. In one sense, I am glad that Sanders called Christians to action in regards to income inequality. Essentially he was saying, ‘If you Christians are who you say you are and live as you say you live, then we should agree and rise up to fight the injustice that is income inequality.’ On a side-note, I do believe income inequality is something that should not be named among the church (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 2 Cor. 8:1-15). The economy of the church is characterized by generosity overflowing from genuine love. How does our church look economically? It may be a good indication of our love for one another.
Nevertheless, what Sanders failed to recognize is that Christian morality is consequential in regards to the essence of Christianity. Christianity is essentially the ongoing story of God’s gospel in Jesus Christ – that man sinned against God, Jesus became a man, lived a perfect life, died on the cross for man’s sin, and was then raised to life, setting in motion the restoration of all things under the lordship of Jesus Christ through faith in Jesus Christ. Christian morality is informed and incarnated with this essence – the essence of the gospel – and it ought to be properly contextualized. Yes, the golden rule (more broadly, love for God and love for others) is the sum of Christian morality, but the golden rule does not stand alone; it cannot be stripped from the story of God’s gospel.
In Christianity, morality is a means to an end – that end being the further emanation of God’s glory through the transformation of His people unto His likeness – and although we might agree that we should desperately try to help the poor and fight against greed, our means of morality are serving different ends. So when Senator Sanders states, “You are a school which as all of us in our own way tries to understand the meaning of morality,” we ought to make sure and clarify that morality is consequential to our true motivation, which is the further emanation of God’s glory through making disciples of Jesus Christ. Do not be deceived: we are functioning with different motivations and different visions. We might both try to live by the golden rule, but I can assure you that we have different motivations for doing so; and motivations make all the difference.
Furthermore, because we are functioning with different motivations, our moral actions (though sounding similar – e.g. ‘help the poor’) will be exercised differently and with different intentions. Christians even understand ‘help’ in a different way. Yes, we certainly see ‘help’ as providing for them physically and fighting against income inequality; but our motivations lead our actions further to point them to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even David Nasser stated something similar during the question and answer portion of convocation regarding race relations, “We would say…it is not so much a skin issue as much as it is a sin issue… Behavior modification can only stop so short as identity change. I think we want what you want, but…” To this, Sanders replied, “Obviously we have got to change our hearts.” Yes, we both can agree that these are problems and that they are moral problems, but the fact is that we address moral issues from a different motivation and with a means that is informed by the gospel. “Obviously we have to got to change our hearts,” but we fundamentally disagree on how hearts are to be changed, why they are to be changed, and what they are to be changed into. That is no moot difference of opinion.
This is the essence of Sanders’ divergence with Christian voters: he calls for justice in the name of morality, but his morality is second-handed, stripped from the gospel-center that gives Christian morality its substance and consistency. He asked for Christians to look at the issue of income inequality “in the context of the Bible,” but he dare not ask them to do the same for issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Why? It is because he functions with a broad view of morality – one that is consistent with all religions inasmuch as they operate within the golden rule – one that is motivated by valuations that are not contextually informed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians do not simply live out the golden rule to be good people and have a good society, though that is certainly sought after; but it is sought after within the proper context, with the proper motivation, and with its proper means – that context being the story of God’s gospel in Jesus Christ. To be blunt, if people are seeking to live out the golden rule without the motivation of further emanating the glory of God, apart from the means of faith (cf. Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6), then their acts of righteousness are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
Inconsistency is the result of a broad morality stripped from the essence of the gospel, and Bernie Sanders exemplified that inconsistency. I could not help but hear the inconsistency as Sanders asked, “How can we talk about morality, about justice, when we turn our backs on the children of our country?” Later Sanders remarked that he believed in “family values.” Immediately my thoughts went to standing up for the thousands of babies that are aborted every day in the United States. Would it not be fair to ask whether we are turning our backs on them? Even in his quotation of Pope Francis, Sanders agreed that the financial issue stems from “the denial of the primacy of the human person.” Would it not be consistent to apply this to the issue of abortion? As Nasser pointed out in the question and answer time, if we are committed to protecting the vulnerable, than our commitment should go farther than simply helping those who are vulnerable to income inequality. The Liberty students asked, “You have talked in your campaign about how it is immoral to protect the billionaire class at the expense of the most vulnerable in society – children. A majority of Christians would agree with you, but would also go further and say children in the womb need our protection even more. How do you reconcile the two in your mind?” The mere question launched the largest applause and a standing ovation from Liberty University. Senator Sanders responded, “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 many women feel they have to make, and don’t want the government telling them what they have to do…I respect your point of view. I hope you will respect my point of view,” and then he continued to speak on protecting the economically vulnerable.
I believe that it was easy to see that Senator Sanders struggled to resolve the inconsistency. Yes, I am a Christian who is pro-life (and barring a more lengthy post, I will not extend it by criticizing the details of Sanders’ response), but I believe that his inconsistency revealed the crux of the issue: his moral appeal was broad, superficial, and it lacked the essence of Christian morality, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.