Liberty University, the conservative, religious college that has been a mainstay for Republican presidential hopefuls for decades, got its first visit of the 2016 election cycle from a Democratic presidential candidate on Monday.
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A Christian rock band welcomed Vermont’s independent, fiercely liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is the first Democratic candidate to accept the university’s standing invitation to all presidential contenders to address its student body.
At Liberty, the college where Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his candidacy, Sanders did not placate or sidestep his on stance on social issues like gay marriage or abortion, but instead began his speech by asking the crowd to look past them.
“We disagree on those issues. I get that," he said. “But let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and the world and that maybe, just maybe, we don’t disagree on them.”
The student body, who filled the large auditorium, most required to attend, listened quietly and respectfully throughout his remarks, but stood loudly and cheered in support for a question about abortion posed to Sanders.
“You’ve talked in your campaign about how it is immoral to protect the billionaire class at the expense of the most vulnerable in society – obviously children,” moderator David Nasser, the school Senior VP for Spiritual Development, said to Sanders. “A majority of Christians would agree with you…but would also go further and say that children in the womb need our protection even more.”
Sanders met the crowd’s passion in his response, saying loudly, “I understand this as an area where we disagree… But I would hope that other people respect the very painful and difficult choice that many woman feel they have to make and don’t want the government telling them what they have to do.”
In an interview earlier this month, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., son of famed evangelist and the school’s founder Jerry Falwell Sr., said he admired Sanders’s “courage” to come.
Rebekah Carley, 21, said she was proud of her school for listening politely.
“I think it will generate much needed conversation on campus,” she said in an interview with ABC News.
Her classmate DJ Marsh, a fan of Sanders, had the senator’s book in his hand. He said he worried his classmates tuned Sanders out. “Unfortunately, I think there are just too many single-issue voters here,” he said.
But way up in the nosebleeds, another sophomore, John Wringham, sat for a long time after the room emptied. Wringham said he was from a conservative, Republican family, but thought Sanders sounded wise and compassionate.
“I was just praying that everyone would be able to really soak it in,” he said, near tears. “I sense great compassion with him.”
“All Christians should be able to relate,” Wringham continued. “We should have that compassion for the lowly, the ones who are in need, the undesirables, the tax collectors.”