Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. ….Bernie Sanders?
For decades, Liberty University has played host to leading conservative politicians. From Reagan to Romney, (Jeb) Bush to Cruz, presidential hopefuls have visited the campus to make speeches about Jesus and American greatness. So it’s no surprise that a leading presidential candidate will make a speech at next month’s convocation. But hold on to your fair-trade coffee: This year the presidential hopeful on the Liberty docket will be none other than Bernie Sanders. Why would this self-proclaimed non-religious socialist rabble-rouser from the hippie hills of Vermont want to journey to the unofficial headquarters of fundamentalist politics? Why would Liberty want to include him?
Could he grab some votes?
First of all, let me admit that this is old news. I’ve been on vacation recently and I’m just now catching up on all the latest culture-war headlines. A few weeks ago, Liberty published its schedule for its fall convocation. Along with predictable right-wing notables such as Texas’s Louis Gohmert and presidential hopeful Ben Carson, Liberty will welcome Senator Sanders.
As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my new book about the history of evangelical/fundamentalist higher education. Liberty was a latecomer to that story, but it soon became a 500-pound gorilla in the world of Christian higher education. Thanks to its huge and lucrative online program, Liberty can claim enormous cash reserves. It has used that money to build big sports programs, big libraries, and big convocation rosters.
Yet in spite of all its parvenu riches, Liberty has struggled to overcome its image as a fundamentalist madrassah. When Ted Cruz made a speech on campus a few months back, outsiders like me gasped that Liberty’s students were forced to attend. The school, journalists exclaimed, still imposed rigid lifestyle requirements on its students. The school, some writers implied, was trapped in the past.
Perhaps the invite to Bernie Sanders resulted from an ambition to overcome this provincial reputation. As current president Jerry Falwell Jr. told the Washington Post, his school is only doing what great universities do. Liberty, Falwell said, is taking up the mantle of true higher education. As he put it,
A university is supposed to be a place where all ideas are discussed. . . . That’s what we’re doing.
But what’s in it for Senator Sanders? In a statement, he explained that he hoped to pull a Pope Francis at the conservative campus.
It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education and many other issues — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.
Before we pooh-pooh Sanders’s dreams, let’s remember that today’s Liberty University is much different from the rigidly political campus of the 1980s. Back in Jerry Falwell (Sr.)’s heyday, the school was a proud incubator of right-wing politics. These days, as faculty member Karen Swallow Prior has argued, there is much more cultural wiggle room for students.
The dress code has been lifted. There has even (briefly) been a College Democrats club.
This leaves us with a few tough questions to consider:
- Is it possible? Can Liberty University transform itself from a southern fundamentalist college to a Great American University?
- And, could Senator Sanders convince any Liberty students that they are part of a progressive alliance, part of a left-leaning movement that has excited the base of the Democratic Party?