AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Bernie Sanders is used to giving his stump speeches to big crowds of adoring supporters. But today, the Democratic socialist Vermont senator went to Liberty University, a conservative Christian college where most of the 12,000 in attendance were Sanders skeptics. NPR's Tamara Keith was there in Lynchburg, Va., for the speech and joins us now. And Tamara, Sanders has been running for the Democratic nomination for president. Why would he go to a place where there are so few Democrats?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The short answer is he was invited. All of the presidential candidates have been. But as one student told me, it took some real intestinal fortitude for Sanders to say yes to that invitation. He said that he's given plenty of speeches to big crowds of people who agree with him, but he feels it's just as important to speak to those who don't agree on every issue. And he readily admitted that there are some issues where they really don't agree like abortion and gay marriage, especially abortion.
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BERNIE SANDERS: 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.
CORNISH: Sanders frequently talks about income inequality. Is that one of the issues he was hoping there'd be some agreement on?
KEITH: Indeed, but he couched it in a different way than he normally does. He couched it in religious and moral terms. He quoted Matthew and the golden rule, but he also quoted the more obscure book of Amos. He quoted the Pope, saying that love of money is the modern-day equivalent of idol worship. And he also talked about social justice.
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SANDERS: There is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.
CORNISH: We mentioned 12,000 in attendance. How were his comments received by the students there?
KEITH: I have to say that it was a mandatory thing. The students had to attend, but they said that they appreciated his message. They maybe disagreed about the solutions that he offered, but they liked having someone who they don't necessarily agree with come to their campus. But I would have to say that the response from Liberty students was polite, but his usual applause lines didn't get the big enthusiastic applause that he would normally get. And one student told me that she thought maybe students just didn't know when to clap. Like, they weren't sure what in his message was a good Christian thing to clap for. I spoke with Missy Sosnoski, and she told me what a lot of the students told me.
MISSY SOSNOSKI: It really takes a lot to come and speak to people who you know disagree with you, and I really respect him for that. So I do not agree with a lot of his policies basically because I'm a Christian, but I do respect him as a person. And I hope he does well with his life - maybe if that's not becoming my president, but I do want the best for him.
CORNISH: So Tamara, was it mostly a polite and muted response?
KEITH: It was pretty muted except for this one moment. It was after the speech, and the school's vice president was conducting a short Q and A with Sanders using questions that the students had submitted. And he asked a question about abortion. And in short, the question was, how can Sanders advocate for the economic needs of vulnerable children while not supporting the rights of the unborn.
And when the question was read out loud, the students started cheering, and there was this big standing ovation. It was by the far the biggest applause line of the whole event, and that was for the question. Sanders pivoted on the answer to talk about the Republican budget. And given his support for abortion rights, there wasn't really any way that the students were going to be satisfied with his answer.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith at Liberty University. Tamara, thank you.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.