Yesterday, Bernie Sanders, a far-left candidate for the Democratic nomination, gave a speech at the conservative Liberty University. (For a transcript, see here.) I don’t usually care what a politician says in a speech, since most political speeches are devoid of reasoning and consist of emoting and appealing to ambiguous terminology (like “justice,” “hope,” “freedom,” and, “opportunity”) without any meaningful policy proposals.
But Sanders’ speech was interesting from both a political and religious perspective. Like Rand Paul’s speeches at Howard and Berkeley, you can sometimes learn a great deal about a speaker when he has to argue in front of an ideologically alien (or hostile) audience. In this case, it was interesting to see how Sanders sought to reason with a religiously and politically conservative audience.
(Not surprisingly, the students were cordial, if not enthusiastic. While I have read Liberty students are required to attend such speeches, there was none of the usual protesting, demonstrations, sit-ins or “safe spaces” that appear on liberal campuses when conservatives are invited to speak. For example, I can’t really imagine my alma mater inviting Rick Santorum or Ryan Anderson to speak about the politics of marriage without some sort of major protest.)
As for Sanders’ speech, let me quote several paragraphs:
Let me take a moment, or a few moments, to tell you what motivates me in the work that I do as a public servant, as a senator from the state of Vermont. And let me tell you that it goes without saying, I am far, far from being a perfect human being, but I am motivated by a vision, which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam and Buddhism, and other religions.
And that vision is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12, and it states, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the war and the prophets.” That is the golden rule. Do unto others, what you would have them do to you. That is the golden rule, and it is not very complicated.
Let me be frank, as I said a moment ago. I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues that you feel very strongly about. We disagree on those issues. I get that, but let me respectfully suggest 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 try to work together to resolve them.
Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Justice treating others the way we want to be treated, treating all people, no matter their race, their color, their stature in life, with respect and with dignity.
Now here is my point. Some of you may agree with me, and some of you may not, but in my view, it would be hard for anyone in this room today to make the case that the United States of America, our great country, a country which all of us love, it would be hard to make the case that we are a just society, or anything resembling a just society today.
In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. Injustice is rampant. We live, and I hope all of you know this, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
You know, that is the truth. We are living in a time — and I warn all of you if you would, put this in the context of the Bible, not me, in the context of the Bible — we are living in a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension. And I’m talking about tens of billions of dollars, enough to support their families for thousands of years. With huge yachts, and jet planes and tens of billions. More money than they would ever know what to do with.
But at that very same moment, there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, who are struggling to feed their families. They are struggling to put a roof over their heads, and some of them are sleeping out on the streets. They are struggling to find money in order to go to a doctor when they are sick.
Now, when we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice, we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.
There is no justice, and I want you to hear this clearly, when the top one-tenth of 1 percent — not 1 percent, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And in your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.
In my view, there is no justice, when here, in Virginia and Vermont and all over this country, millions of people are working long hours for abysmally low wages of $7.25 an hour, of $8 an hour, of $9 an hour, working hard, but unable to bring in enough money to adequately feed their kids.
Unsurprisingly, Sanders is concerned about material prosperity. After all, that is what the left is about these days. There is no room in the progressive agenda for any of the transcendent concerns that have traditionally occupied the human race–virtue, character, and religion.
That said, there are places in this country–some I have seen first-hand–where there is a great deal of poverty. I do not mean the kind of poverty where someone is upset they cannot afford a larger television or a luxury car, but the sort that grinds at dignity and hope with a thousand afflictions both systemic and personal. Travelling farther to reach a decent grocery store, spending more on security, the aesthetic degradation of streets and shops, the constant sense of fear from inadequately policed streets, the reeking of trash and sewage, the roaches and rodents, the squealing of poorly maintained vehicles–real poverty assaults both the soul and the senses.
The statistical evidence bears this out. While sometimes these figures are exaggerated, there is no question that the broader picture is one of the rich becoming richer and everyone else staying mostly the same, including millions who struggle every day to make ends meet.
Sanders and the Justice of God
So Sanders is correct to identify a set of significant injustices. But that is only part of the issue. It is one matter to state that some problem exists. It is another entirely to say it is a problem greater than all others (as Sanders’ broader platform would suggest) and that proposed (in this case, progressive) solutions are the best available.
But I couldn’t find anything in Sanders’ speech that comes close to an attempt to reason in favor of his policy proposals. Like many politicians, Sanders seems to state a set of facts and lets underlying, unspoken assumptions do the rest of the work:
Now you have got to think about it. You have to think about it and you have to feel it in your guts. Are you content? Do you think it’s moral when 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African American children are living in poverty?
These rhetorical questions are designed to evoke certain answers. Of course it is unacceptable that there are children living in poverty.
But what then? I may agree with a progressive that something is really evil, but if we have different ideas as to what counts as just, we will likely go about solving that problem in different ways. This is because, to turn a well-known phrase, no policy solution is an island. Every policy proposal will use our limited resources in ways that restrict and constrain how we can deal with other political difficulties. Since progressives tend to have a myopic view of justice, their policy proposals have unintended (usually negative) effects on many areas that are of concern to conservatives, especially religious ones.
As for Sanders’ textual appeals:
It is careless to assume the American concept of justice just so happens to align with the Biblical one. (The concept of justice is a rather thick one, and historically very diverse. See Tamler Sommers’ overview in Relative Justice [Princeton University Press, 2012]. Many concepts of justice are mutually exclusive.) As it turns out, Sanders may cite Matthew and Amos in making his (Rawlsian?) case for economic justice, but his appeal elides the substantive differences between the Scriptural description of justice and Sanders’ decidedly secular vision of a rightly ordered political universe. Just what are those differences?
(A) In the Old Testament, the concept of justice has a specifically delineated meaning given in the Pentateuch that is further refined in subsequent historical practice. As Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright describes it:
For Israel, then, justice was no abstract concept or philosophical definition. Justice was essentially theological. It was rooted in the character of the LORD, their God; it flowed from his actions in history; it was demanded by his covenant relationship with Israel; it would ultimately be established on the earth only by his sovereign power (Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 256).
(But what of Sanders’ appeal to Jesus? I start with the Old Testament because that is what informs the New. Jesus’ concept of justice was based in the Old Testament. Biblical justice is not a word into which we can import our modern sensibilities about what is right or wrong, no matter how popular or appealing the sentiment might be.)
(B) While justice was intimately tied to material outcomes–God expected that there were to be no poor in Israel (Deuteronomy 15:4) and provided laws and mechanisms to reduce and eliminate poverty–it was never divorced from spiritual concerns. And there was a third aspect that is often completely ignored in our political dialogue–what we might call a social one. Right government action, which serves as the primary vehicle of progressive justice, does little to cultivate community virtue, let alone a righteous standing with God. If anything, some (but not all) government programs absent these two other factors can create structures of dependency and polarized, resentful constituencies that contribute to the moral decay of the political and social order.
(C) Furthermore, the Biblical vision of governmental justice is alien to the left’s. Sanders might cite Amos, but there is no question Amos would be against the very idea of government sanctioned gay marriage; it would have been anathema to his sense of justice, to what constituted a rightly ordered (extended) family structure as based on the precepts of the Pentateuch, which promoted monogamous marriage and frowned upon (to put it mildly) homosexual relationships. In fact, rightly ordered families would have been integral to the promotion of civic, community, and personal justice, the absence of which would have (and eventually did, in the judgment and exile) prevented economic flourishing. Amos’ vision of justice has more in common with Kim Davis than Bernie Sanders.
(D) Sanders’ view of justice also neglects the Old Testament’s complex view of poverty, which seems to always be downstream of a failure of justice. Whereas Sanders seems to think the cure for most poverty is redistribution, the Bible identifies at least four causes of poverty: (1) poor personal choices, due either to character flaws or naïvety (a major theme in Proverbs); (2) systemic evil (especially by cruel, corrupt or unlawful monarchs, pagan or Jewish); (3) natural disasters (famine, pestilence, or even raiding bands or tribes); and, (4) spiritual (demonic) affliction (as occurs in Job). Even discounting #3, which has been largely mitigated by modern technology, and #4, which is scoffed at by moderns, Sanders doesn’t seem to acknowledge the personal side of poverty. It is simply a fact that some people are impoverished because of habitually awful personal choices. The Biblical vision of justice addresses all of these aspects, whereas, so far as I can tell, Sanders’ addresses only one half of one. And if one’s sense of justice is warped, so will his solutions to perceived injustices, let alone the full range of actual ones.
(E) As for abortion, Sanders does not understand that the Biblical sense of justice was grounded in the Abrahamic promises of a fruitful people out of whom would come the promised savior. To have children was not a choice grounded in personal fulfillment–people today treat child-rearing only a little better than pet selection–but an act that was helping forward the very salvation of the world. Every devout Jewish woman would have longed to be the mother of the savior of the world. The idea of potentially aborting that child would have been morally abhorrent.
It is not enough to ensure that our neighbors have a certain material standard. The good civic life depends on the character of those enforcing bureaucracies and laws and the virtuous behavior of our neighbors. This idea of virtuous behavior is further defined and shaped by the moral expectations of God’s law as delivered in the Pentateuch, none of which has any place in the progressive sense of justice.
While I applaud Sanders’ willingness to dialogue with ideological opposites, I did not find his case all that appealing.