By KEN THOMAS
LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) -- In an unlikely appearance at a prominent Christian university, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Monday the "massive injustice" of income and wealth inequality should unite people across the political spectrum.
From the outset, Sanders noted in his speech at Liberty University that he believed in women's rights and gay marriage, drawing some cheers but mostly tepid applause in the cavernous Vines Center, where the school regularly assembles during the week. But the Vermont senator said the problems of wealth inequality and economic justice showed that "maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve that."
"It would be hard to make the case that we are a just society or anything resembling a just society today," Sanders said at the influential Christian college in Virginia that usually draws Republican presidential candidates. "In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality."
His pitch was met with scattered applause and many students sat politely with their arms folded during his appearance, declining to clap.
In a question-and-answer session, the student body erupted when Liberty senior vice president David Nasser noted that many students felt "children in the womb need our protection." Sanders defended abortion rights, acknowledging it was "an area where we disagree," but said it should not be a decision dictated by the government.
"I do understand and I do believe that it is improper for the United States government or state government to tell every woman in this country the very painful and difficult choice that she has to make on that issue," Sanders said.
Sanders' appearance at Liberty was the boldest example yet of his attempt to appeal to people outside the traditional umbrella of the Democratic party and expand the party's base -- something he called engaging in "civil discourse." The independent who calls himself a "democratic socialist" is challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton for the party's presidential nomination.
"It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you," Sanders said, adding, "But it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue."
In an interview at the University of Virginia, Sanders contrasted himself with Clinton on issues like trade, the Keystone XL pipeline and Social Security. He also pointed out that he voted against authorizing the war in Iraq in 2002.
"I'm not the former secretary of state but I think my judgment has been pretty good," said Sanders, who later appeared at a Monday night rally in Manassas, Virginia.
Liberty, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1971, is a familiar stop for Republican presidential hopefuls seeking to connect with conservative evangelicals. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz launched his GOP presidential campaign there last March and Republican hopeful Dr. Ben Carson is scheduled to speak at the convocation in November. But it has hosted fewer Democrats over the years.
Sanders said he was "far from a perfect human being" but was motivated by the vision of the religious teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The senator was raised in a Jewish family and is non-observant, but his campaign said he stopped at a Rosh Hashanah gathering Monday at the home of Michael Gillette, Lynchburg's mayor.
Pointing to Scripture, Sanders cited the "Golden Rule" of Matthew's Gospel as a guiding principle to treat others as you would like to be treated.
As the U.S. prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis, Sanders said he agreed with the pope's views that the financial crisis "originated in a profound human crisis" that saw too many people place a greater emphasis on the pursuit of wealth than faith.
Sanders' rallies have drawn tens of thousands of supporters but his appearance at the school's convocation, which students are required to attend with few exceptions, was one of his more unusual stops. Before he spoke, Sanders looked on as students sang along to a Christian rock band that performed before nearly 12,000 people.
Many students said they respected Sanders for speaking but said his views on social issues were a deal-breaker. Danielle Eschedor, a 19-year-old sophomore from Wellington, Ohio, said the senator had a "good heart" and she was glad he spoke at the school. But Eschedor said "the responsibility falls on the church" to address many of the nation's social problems.
"I'm glad they invited him but I wouldn't vote for him," said Nathan White, a junior from Houston. White said he opposed gay marriage and abortion rights and described himself as a capitalist.
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