Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will speak at Liberty University’s Convocation on Sept. 14.
Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is set to take the podium at the evangelical university Nov. 11.
Sanders and Carson are just two of the names on a schedule of convocation speakers for the fall semester released to media Wednesday. Others include former major league baseball player Darryl Strawberry, former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, evangelist Clayton King and Rabbi Daniel Lapin.
University President Jerry Falwell said the university is inviting all presidential candidates for the 2016 election cycle. He wasn’t sure who the university has or has not formally contacted at this point, but said the idea is to reach everyone. Republican candidate and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was part of the planned lineup, Falwell said, but he had to reschedule.
School attorneys, he said, believe inviting all candidates during this 2016 election cycle is the safest course of action to protect Liberty University’s nonprofit status under U.S. tax law.
With that said, Falwell explained he thinks it’s also important for Liberty University students to hear a variety of viewpoints at convocation.
He said he’s looking forward to meeting Sanders and Liberty students have a good track record of being respectful to speakers of all kinds. Still, he said, Sanders will be playing away rather than home field, politically speaking.
“We have a very conservative student body,” he said. “I admire him for having the courage to come to Liberty and speak.”
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who touts his campaign as a grassroots movement, held a live kickoff event July 30 in which he said was broadcast to 100,000 people nationwide. More than 50 of those potential volunteer campaign workers watched the broadcast from two rooms in Michael Brosmer’s Lynchburg home.
“It is kind of strange, not really an expected stop as far as we are concerned, but we are excited for the opportunity to get to have Bernie here in Lynchburg and hopefully do some meet and greet here with our group,” Brosmer said, Wednesday evening.
“I’m not familiar with Liberty’s convocations. I’ve never attended one. … I’m hoping they will open up at least to some members of our organization to attend.”
Sanders issued a statement about his acceptance of the invitation from Liberty University.
“Liberty University was kind enough to invite me to address a convocation and I decided to accept. It goes without saying that my views on many issues – women’s rights, gay rights, education – are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues," Sanders said in the statement.
“It is very easy for a candidate to speak to people who hold the same views. It’s harder but important to reach out to others who look at the world differently. I look forward to meeting with the students and faculty of Liberty University.”
Liberty’s convocations are open to the public, though Falwell says the school typically doesn’t advertise because students fill most of the seats.
Liberty’s convocation has become a stop for many Republican politicians seeking the White House. At least eight of the 17 Republican presidential hopefuls have spoken at convocation.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, made a speech there in March after he became the first candidate to officially enter the 2016 race. Jeb Bush, former Florida governor, spoke at Liberty’s commencement ceremony in May before he announced his presidential campaign.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky; Rick Santorum, former U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania; real estate tycoon and reality TV star Donald Trump; former Texas governor Rick Perry; former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee; and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore also spoke at the university.
U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a D-Virginia, then the commonwealth’s governor, stumped at the university for then-candidate President Barack Obama.
Going further back in history, the university has hosted left-wing politicians and leaders such as Jesse Jackson and the late Ted Kennedy. Liberty had planned to host Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe last spring, but that was scrapped temporarily due to Cruz’s visit.
Falwell said Wednesday the school is working on bringing the Governor to campus soon, though his name isn’t on the fall list of convocation speakers.
Falwell said he personally asked for Rabbi Daniel Lapin to be included in this fall’s lineup. He said Lapin is a longtime friend to the university and a strong supporter of the state of Israel. Falwell sees urgency for discussing the topic in light of discussion about Iran’s nuclear capacity.
“I think if Iran had a nuclear bomb they wouldn’t hesitate to use it against Israel,” he said. “That’s a scary thought.”
Convocation is Liberty's thrice-weekly student gathering, frequently drawing more than 12,000 people. It is mandatory for residential undergraduate students.
Staff writer Alex Rohr contributed to this story.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the first candidate to officially enter the 2016 presidential race, picked LU as the setting for his presidential campaign launch — a first for the city and a rare move for a candidate whose political roots are in another state.