In the spring of 1968, appearing before a group composed largely of medical students at Indiana State University Robert Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency, gave an impassioned speech about the need to make this a better country. Citing statistics concerning urban and rural poverty, the need to expand the food stamp program, and especially the need for a national health care, Kennedy knew that this largely white middle class audience was not his natural constituency. The poor had, by this time, largely come to be seen by white America as a ‘black’ problem. The majority of the poor had always been white in America, but in the minds of most white Americans, especially those in suburban and rural America, when they saw in their minds the face of poverty, it didn’t look anything like what they saw in the mirror.
This week found Bernie Sanders standing before a large and attentive audience in Lynchburg, Virginia at perhaps America’s most conservative fundamentalist institution of higher learning. Before an audience of perhaps ten thousand or more in the field house at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Sanders began his remarks by acknowledging that much of what he represents would find little favor here. “We are different”, he began. But, he continued, there is much more common ground than one might think between this white Jewish liberal Senator from a northeast state and the convictions taught at one of evangelism’s most celebrated universities. Calling inequality ‘immoral’ and the moral imperative of meeting the needs of the least among us, Sanders spoke at length about the common ground upon which they could perhaps reach consensus.
The story isn’t, as the press would have it, that Sander’s is here exhibiting the courage of Daniel by going into the proverbial Lion’s Den. Nor is the story that he had failed in his effort to convert the assembled to liberalism. It is that in the context of today’s bitterly partisan political climate Liberty University provided a much needed public service by hosting a forum in which a reasoned, civil discussion of our agreements as well as our disagreements can take place. Jerry Falwell would have every reason to be proud; and so should the nation.