election 2016

Meet the Evangelical Pastor and Liberty University Alum Who’s Feeling the Bern

Senator Bernie Sanders Speaks At Liberty University Convocation
Bernie Sanders at Liberty University. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senator Bernie Sanders received a combination of polite applause and stony silence from students and faculty during last week’s speech at famously conservative Liberty University, the Virginia-based Evangelical school founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell. But the self-described socialist presidential hopeful didn’t leave empty-handed — he now has the endorsement of at least one member of the Liberty community.

Last Tuesday, a Liberty alumnus who gave his name only as Jim posted a short sermon on the subReddit /r/SandersForPresident, explaining that as soon as he saw the “crazy, wild-haired Jew,” he thought of John the Baptist. In the audio recording, Jim said:

As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair — this Jew — and he proclaimed justice over us, he called us to account, for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful, and for abandoning the poor, the least of these, who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to.

Daily Intelligencer reached out to Jim, who currently works as a pastor and psychotherapist in Las Vegas, and asked him to expand on his views about Bernie Sanders and his conversion from GOP-supporting conservative to maverick economic progressive.

Tell us a bit about your education and your religious background.
I’m in my early 30s, and I went to Liberty University and got my bachelor’s there in religion with a specialization in biblical studies. I also got a master’s there in marriage and family therapy. It’s a very good school. I originally went to Liberty because I felt they best represented the beliefs I’d been raised with and wanted to carry into the ministry. In 2004 I worked for the George W. Bush campaign and was part of getting him reelected.

So you were working on the Bush campaign in 2004, and now you’re supporting Bernie Sanders. What happened that influenced such a big change in your politics?
So this is the weirdest thing. In 2004 I worked for the George W. Bush campaign. I was knocking on doors and making the argument that this is what Jesus would want, that we should support this guy for biblical reasons, for Christian reasons. I remember I even wrote a fan letter to Sean Hannity. I was pretty die-hard. Ironically, it was Liberty University that changed me.

I remember the day that everything came to a climax. I was given an assignment where we were supposed to go through the gospels and study just the words of Jesus and come to a conclusion about what we believe the gospel is. I feel that even though I’d been a Christian for a long, long time, it was in that class that I really met Jesus for the first time.

In the middle of the night, I came upon this passage, “Come all you weary with your heavy loads.” As I read that, it just shattered me because I had been taught politically that Jesus was a warrior. Jesus was a king with a sword and was aggressive. And here was this gentle Christ who was inviting me into a loving relationship.

So that was a huge turning point for me. I proposed that the gospel of Christ is what he says it is in the Book of Luke. He says the messenger comes to bring good news to the poor, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. If our gospel is not good news to the poor, to the captives, to the indebted and the broken, then it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. So I proposed that in my paper, and Liberty was very kind about it. I think I got an A in that class.

So you were a Bernie supporter before you saw him speak at Liberty?
Most people want to believe that there I am, watching Bernie speak at Liberty the other day, and that is the moment of turnaround. But the truth is my transformation began in that moment when I was a student at Liberty.

When I applied my Christian faith with the world, with this new mind-set, instead of just believing the bumper-sticker stuff I was told growing up, I was beginning to conclude different things than the leaders in my movement.

The Bible talks about God destroying those who destroy the Earth and standing for the weak and the penniless. That same God was being displayed on our flags and in our songs as this warrior king who doesn’t like the Muslims and who doesn’t like the poor and who wants us to have free-market capitalism and no regulations. I thought that was inconsistent. This is the same God who designed [regulations] into his theocratic government in Israel so that the poor were cared for. This is the same God that designs into the concept of ministry a tithe of 10 percent to care for others.

So why Bernie?
I’ve really admired Bernie for a long time as the senator of Vermont and how he has always been no-nonsense and straight to the point. And the thing I most like about him is that the message, to him, is way more important than the man. If he could delete his name from the ballot and somehow just offer America the portfolio of ideas, the package of ideas that he believes in, he would do it. He does not care about his name or being famous or being called Mr. President.

That is refreshing. I am arriving at those same conclusions separately from him. Basically, Bernie Sanders is a fellow wanderer on the path toward truth who I have bumped into on this journey, and I find that we are walking side by side.

You’ve said that Bernie Sanders talks like he’s reading right from Scripture and that people would have to be burying their heads in the sand to continue to support conservative policies. Are some Evangelicals burying their heads in the sand?
There are studies done that demonstrate that, on average, Christians who report that they read their Bible more often will also report having more progressive, liberal views. That’s scandalous. I’m calling my fellow Evangelicals to raise their eyes and to pay attention, to read their Bibles carefully, as I was taught to do in an Evangelical school. So many get their faith points from Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, but if they would get their faith from Jesus, they would be surprised at how he does not fit into any box and flips the tables of the money-changers and stands with the adulterers and prevents the death penalty.

Bernie’s no saint; it’s not like everything he says has a stamp on it that says Jesus, but as it so happens, most of what his platform is very closely aligns with the gospel of Christ.

What is your response to those disagreeing with your interpretation of Christianity and the Bible?
Bernie’s not Christian, he doesn’t claim to be. And I am no prophet, but there is a rich tradition in the Evangelical Church of members of the family standing up and crying out for change. That’s not something that we squash; that’s not something unusual. It is a valued part of our tradition. Christianity has always been very self-evolving and self-rectifying.

Christianity is a diverse family. There are millions of us, and we are all over the world. We drink this kind of talk, we struggle with these things. It’s part of our tradition to look inwardly and be self-corrective.

The part of the conversation I’m bringing is unique because it hasn’t really been amplified to this volume before, but it is also very well received. I’m really getting thousands of messages from Liberty students and pastors who are part of the Evangelical tradition and leaders from all over the place telling me, “Thank you.”

What was your reaction?
When I posted the first sermon, I woke up to find that a quarter of a million people had listened to it. I was absolutely floored. So I spent most of that next day reading the comments and trying to understand what people’s reception of it was. The first and biggest message I heard people saying was, “Finally, somebody’s saying it.” People were saying, “We need more of this.”

So I’ve begun that. Yesterday I posted a message on immigration, and I intend to post messages on climate change and also poverty and warfare, and I’m also going to conclude with a sermon on homosexuality and a sermon on abortion.

I’ve actually seen very little backlash, to be honest, but the waves of dissent and vitriol are still ahead, and they’ll come as soon as I complete the series.

When it comes to issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, do your views still align with Senator Sanders’s?
I’ll tell you this: I don’t know that you’ll ever have a candidate who identically matches Jesus on all views. I would say that whenever folks hear my sermon on abortion and my message on homosexuality, they are going to be scandalized by what the Bible actually says about these things. Bernie Sanders is not trying to imitate the Bible. I believe that when I have the opportunity to show people what the Scripture actually says and sometimes, more importantly, what it does not say, people will discover that there is less and less reason not to vote for Bernie.

What was your intention with posting this recording on Reddit?
It was mostly on a whim. I like Reddit, and I’ve liked them for a while.

Bernie at Liberty, for me, struck such a nerve because he treated us like grown-ups. He presented the message thoughtfully, politely. He was warmhearted, he was jovial, he didn’t play any political games. He didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear. He was just plain, and it reminded me of John the Baptist. But it also reminded me of Nathaniel, who Jesus said, “Here is a Hebrew in whom there is no deceit.” I thought Bernie was pretty awesome before, but here is a man in whom there is no deceit.

I was so excited about him, and I was reading all over the place that people were saying, “Oh, Liberty University, they’re all ignorant, they’re Evangelical, and nobody will support Bernie.” So, I posted to Reddit, and I said, “Wow, Bernie, you’re like a voice in a wilderness crying out for justice.” And a lot of people thought it was fake, and there were a lot of liberal folk saying that, as much as they’d like to believe the posts were real, they were saying, “It probably isn’t real.”

So I had to run an errand, and I got in my car, and I thought, Well, I should tell them what I mean. So I thought, Okay, I’m just going to get my phone and talk like I’m on a phone call, and I’ll post it as my comment. As I pulled out my phone, I started to speak and explain, saying whatever came naturally, and it came out very sermonic. I finished my thought, and I found that clip site, and I just posted it up there.

I went to bed, and I didn’t think about it again. I was just blown away, and I just watched all day long as hundreds of thousands of people listened to this.

Can you explain your choice to remain anonymous?
It isn’t that I’m in danger of being fired or assassinated or whatever. That’s silliness … I mean, I’d prefer not to be targeted. But I have my own practice. And one thing that’s unique about me in psychotherapy is that I’m a pastor, and I come from that tradition. One thing we all kind of know is that many Christians from conservative Evangelicalism don’t really trust science a lot, and they don’t really trust psychology, so I’m sort of one of the only people that many hurting folks will come see. I don’t want my patients to be caught up in all this.

Having said that, the day may come where I am in the open. I can’t comment on any communication that I’ve had or will have with the Sanders campaign, but I’ll say this: I live in Las Vegas, and Senator Sanders is coming out for the first debate in October. That’s like a month away, but it may not be the case that I stay anonymous forever.

You mentioned that a lot of Liberty students and graduates have reached out to you. Do you think a lot of people agree with you at Liberty University?
I would say it’s just beneath the majority. That should shock you, but it is. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten. People will just say, “I’m a Liberty student, and thank you.” Two kinds of messages are becoming increasingly common, from formerly religious people who are writing to ask questions and from Liberty students, from all over the world. A lot of them are writing and saying, “Okay, that was meaningful. Let me ask you some questions.”

What should probably surprise you is that those people who in most cases would be writing that Bill Maher hate mail are writing very kind things and saying, “Hey, I think I disagree with you, but I’m willing to enter into this conversation with you.”

The day will come, whenever those sermons come out about homosexuality and abortions and I present how I believe the Bible is speaking about these issues — that will probably be a day when people have some more energetic words to say to me.

This Liberty U. Alumnus Is Feeling the Bern