Lynchburg, VA—Amos 5:24- But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.
Atop the football stadium at Liberty University runs a big sign that reads “HOME OF THE FLAMES.” The same slogan as Hell. And the same beguiling tableau.
Heaven and hell: two sides of the same coin, indistinguishable twins. Liberty was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, a polished, toad-like televangelist who emerged from a family of bootleggers and atheists to create a conservative Christian empire rooted in these hills. These rolling, green central Virginia hills, like frozen ocean swells, which even in the most pleasant weather make you feel as if you might die by mudslide at any moment. Lynchburg and its surrounding areas retain more than a hint of the backwoods. Any gentility here was once hacked out of this land by the power of someone’s sweat. Or by a Bible. Liberty, more than any other Christian college, is built to infuse its students with not just religion, but political religion; not just Christianity, but weaponized Christianity, designed to bend the rest of the nation to its precepts.
If Liberty is Jerry Falwell’s heaven, then it must, by definition, be Bernie Sanders’ hell. The old socialist agreed to come and speak here as a gesture of outreach and reconciliation. But if we are being honest, he was doing something else: meeting his enemy.
On the surface, Liberty looks like a regular college. It has handsome, new brick buildings, and clean trimmed lawns, and is visibly prosperous, with construction ongoing all over campus. There is a large student center, and a baseball stadium, and a gym, and a rock climbing wall, and an artificial ski slope. After its differences become apparent, though, they are hard to ignore.
The student body by and large looks like the student body of a normal college, if someone had taken it and removed the sluttiest 20% of students and all of the hardcore stoners. Speakers on every lamp post down University Boulevard on campus play Christian pop music ceaselessly, in the same way that American Eagle stores play techno. The school’s bookstore is run by Barnes & Noble, and offers the ample chairs and Starbucks outlet that come with every Barnes & Noble. But it does not offer the same book selection. There are separate sections for Ministry, Women’s Ministry, Devotionals, Christian Living, Christian Fiction, Biblical Studies, Bibles, Theology, Discipleship, Apologetics, Evangelism, and Missions. In the small Philosophy section, you can buy “Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions” and “Ender’s Game and Philosophy.” But no Nietzsche. God is not dead here, yet. In the Science section, you can buy “Signature in the Cell: DNA and Evidence for Intelligent Design.” But no Darwin.
What the school is not, however, is threatening. There is no fire nor brimstone to be found. Everything at Liberty is well-lit, clean, and welcoming. It is well-funded, well-run, and well attuned to the modern media environment. It is the academic version of a megachurch, where the church becomes your community center, your hangout place, your everything. Religion is just a comforting blanket that secures the whole package. The only contrast with its modernity is the fact that, at its core, it is based on superstitions thousands of years old.
Three times a week, Liberty students must go to “convocation,” to see a guest speaker, hear announcements, and enjoy a sort of Christian pep rally. Attendance is taken. “It’s like our version of chapel,” a smiling student told me. “But way better.” Convocation’s guest speakers are usually preachers, Christian entertainers, or Republican politicians. When Bernie Sanders agreed to speak at Monday’s convocation, the half of America that studiously ignores Liberty University at all times perked up and took notice.
Along with the political press corps. America’s traveling pack of khaki-wearers descended here on Monday morning. The event began at 10:30; the first five rows, reserved for the press, were full by 9:45. (The students, who have to do this shit all the time, didn’t file in until 10:15.) The school had thoughtfully opened the event to the public, so outside the areana, small knots of Bernie Sanders supporters could be seen arriving all morning. Many looked giddy. Others seemed prickly to be on such holy ground. A bearded local restaurant worker and atheist had a hard time tolerating the crowd. “I can’t tell you how many Liberty freshman have come in the restaurant and tried to save me,” he muttered. “I’m sure they’re only doing this so they can maintain their nonprofit status.” One group of three college students stood out amid the clean-cut hordes: one kid with a “Bernie Sanders 2016” t-shirt, one girl with dyed platinum blond hair, and another wearing a skully and bright red lipstick. They were students at a school 45 minutes away who’d come to see the show. I asked them what they thought of Liberty University. There was a long pause. “It... has a very nice campus,” volunteered the lipstick girl.
The mainstream political press corps during campaign season is America’s most harried group. Their lives are an endless procession of events like this. They must file stories at every stop. They do not have the luxury of contemplation; their job is to construct narrative, constantly, to give the sprawling and formless mass of politics a coherent storyline, real or not. They spin narrative at the same frantic pace that maquiladora workers turn out t-shirts. They are forced to push all events into an easily digestible template. Their jobs are not to be envied.
A half hour before convocation, in search of filler quotes, I leaned forward and asked the kid sitting in front of me what he thought. He turned out to be a high school kid and self-described “political junkie” who wanted to go to Liberty next year. Did he think Bernie could win over the crowd. “Well, he has a better chance than Hillary,” the kid said. I promised to ask him what he thought after the speech was over.
One minute later, a man from the New York Times walked up and interviewed the same kid, who was sitting in a convenient aisle seat. He got the same quotes. “I’d love to hear what you think after you hear him,” the Times guy said. Two minutes later, the AP man walked up and interviewed the same kid. A small band of dedicated activists could easily pose as the entire political pulse of America just by sitting three rows behind the traveling press corps, in aisle seats.
At 10:30 sharp, everyone rose and a student Christian band kicked off the show. All the guys in the band were wearing jeans and blazers. They looked like they worked in an ad agency. “I have deciiiiiided! To follow Jeeeeeesus!” they sang, in what was probably a first for the opening music of a Bernie Sanders rally.
As the band played on to a spiritual crescendo, the student body enthusiastically joined in. Hundreds and hundreds of 18-year-olds with their hands raised in the air, swaying back and forth, belting out “All heaven sings! To Christ alone!” with expressions of pure, heartfelt bliss. At that moment, I felt more sympathy for Liberty University’s existence than ever before. Where else were all of these kids going to go? Oberlin? Political considerations aside, everyone deserves a place to be themselves.
Of course, it is not easy to put political considerations aside when you contemplate the fact that at least some of the hundreds of kids singing “I believe! In the virgin birth!” must be medical students. Stay out of Lynchburg-area hospitals, sure, but who knows where they all end up? That’s the whole problem with evangelism: it wants to spread its god damn gospel to you. That is why evangelical Christians are inextricable from political battles, and why Liberty University’s kind service of providing a social outlet to church kids who would be friendless at UC-Santa Cruz is outweighed by the fact that it turns these nice kids into politicians who, in 20 years, will shut down the last abortion clinic in your state.
Into this grasping maw came Bernie Sanders. A spry and cranky old man in a baggy suit, white hair askew, preaching about economic equality. It is a long way from Vermont to Lynchburg, Virginia. Everyone had come out to see whether Bernie Sanders was capable of bridging that gap; whether the cranky socialist, in other words, could exhibit for once a quality that we expect in our politicians: schmoozy bullshitting with people you don’t like.
The answer is no. Upon taking the stage, the very first thing Bernie Sanders did was to tell the crowd, “We are different,” noting that he believes in the right to abortion, and gay marriage. He did this in the most polite possible context. Still, it was a bit of a proud I-put-my-dick-in-the-mashed-potatoes moment. It was clear that Bernie Sanders is constitutionally incapable of schmoozy bullshitting, which is the sort of thing that people with actual ideals will love him for and which the political press corps will call a “big drawback to electability.”
“It is easy to talk to people who agree with you,” Bernie said. “It is much harder, but not less important,” to talk to the sort of people who attend Liberty University convocation. Acknowledging bluntly that they would never agree on, let us say, social issues, Bernie went on to make a forceful (and predictably Bible-based) case that the economic inequality that plagues America is immoral, and should offend Christians in their very souls.
He quoted Pope Francis. He quoted the Golden Rule. He spoke in terms of justice, of right and wrong. His refrain was, “In my view, there is no justice when....”
When 15 people in America have gained $170 billion in wealth in two years. When 20% of American children live in poverty. When people die because our nation does not have public health insurance. When new mothers are forced to leave their babies because we do not have a federal family leave law. When we jail more people than any other country, but allow millions to suffer joblessness. Bernie Sanders made the case, as forcefully as it can be made, that these are moral issues, not partisan ones, and that the followers of Jesus—a guy who recommended giving everything that you have to the poor—should care about rampant inequality with the same passion that they care about, you know, other people ass fucking. He set aside the implacable social issues and sought to rally his political enemies to his side using their own proclaimed allegiance to the Christian ethic. (It made me idly wonder if everyone would accept a deal in which abortion is outlawed in exchange for full socialism in America.) Try as he might, he could not restrain himself from yelling. We must redistribute our wealth “to benefit EVERYONE,” he would roar, less a calculating politician than an outraged true believer impervious to his setting.
At the conclusion of Bernie’s speech, he sat on stage with Liberty’s David Nasser, who has the enviable title of “SVP of Spiritual Development,” to answer a few questions submitted by students. One challenged Bernie on abortion, which drew thunderous shrieks of agreement from the assembled student body. He gave not an inch. “I don’t wanna be too provocative,” he replied, “but often conservatives say ‘Get the government out of my life!’” To a question about ending racism, Bernie decried police violence, calling it “institutional racism that cries out for reform,” and cited America’s racist history of segregation to make the point that something more than vague paeans to equality are necessary for real change. Nasser, eager to establish his own side’s bona fides on the issue, chimed in, “At Liberty University, we’re not interested in seeing people of color sit on the bus, or sit in the restaurant—we want to see them own the bus, or own the restaurant!”
Bernie Sanders is a crusader. He does not seek to compromise, but to draw people into his own army with the power of his moral clarity. In this sense, he is not different from the religious crowd that sits in settled opposition to him. The difference is that Bernie Sanders’ crusade is based upon an honest reading of the facts of our world today, while Liberty University’s crusade is based upon a muddled reading of a book of tall tales told to ancient shepherds. Everyone—the Bernie partisans, the hardcore Republicans, the scorecard-keeping press corps—who came out to see if Bernie Sanders could survive in this ostensibly hostile environment was treated to a surprise. At the end of convocation, Nasser prayed aloud that Bernie “would know that he’s made friends today.”
Revelation 21:8-“All liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” Liberty University is too well-coiffed for fire and brimstone. But Bernie Sanders is not. He is impolite enough to start tossing people into the lake.
Home of the Flames, indeed.
[Photos via AP]