Story highlights

Bernie Sanders spoke Monday at the conservative Liberty University

He acknowledged differences on social issues, but argued they can agree on income inequality

Lynchburg, Virginia CNN  — 

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday stepped into a hotbed of cultural conservatism, only to venture into one of liberal populism hours later.

In the morning, Sanders spoke at Liberty University and staunchly defended abortion rights to a capacity crowd of nearly 12,000, while speaking bluntly about the country’s “racist” past. And in the Washington suburb of Manassas, Virginia, a fired-up Sanders dished his trademark message of shrinking the wage gap to an excited crowd.

“I’m not up here singing before you. I’m not making jokes. We are talking about the most serious issues facing the American people,” Sanders told the crowd. “Brothers and sisters, our job is to end that rigged economy and create an economy that works for working people.”

It was a comfortable environment for Sanders, and a familiar message. But what made Sanders’ Monday more unusual was that he spent 27 minutes addressing that same issue, wealth inequality – which is a central piece of his insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination – here at the largest Christian college in the world.

Sanders didn’t hide from the hot-button issues of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, which he laid out at the onset of his speech by saying: “We disagree about those issues.”

During a question-and-answer session after the speech, Sanders was asked what he would do to end racism.

“I would hope and I believe that every person in this room today understands that it is unacceptable to judge people, to discriminate against people based on the color of their skin,” Sanders said to applause.

He then added, “And I would also say that as a nation – the truth is, that a nation which in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back on racist principles, that’s a fact – we have come a long way as a nation.”

Overall, Sanders was received politely by the crowd, with a cheering section enthusiastically erupting whenever the Vermont Independent delved into his stump speech. But those supporters were decidedly in the minority.

It was during the question-and-answer portion when the crowd was the most enthusiastic. David Nasser, the university’s senior vice president for spiritual development, asked Sanders directly to “reconcile” his view that he wants to safeguard the most vulnerable without protecting “the child in the womb.” A deafening applause erupted for more than 20 seconds.

But Sanders, in his typically stern tone, didn’t shy away and gave a vigorous defense for his views on abortion rights.

“I do understand and I do believe that it is improper for the United States government to tell every women in this country the very painful and difficult choice she has to make on that issue,” Sanders said. “And I honestly, I don’t want to be too provocative here, but very often conservatives say, ‘Get the government out of my life, I don’t want the government telling me what to do.’”

A small section of the crowd cheered in support of Sanders.

Sanders, who is Jewish, ventured onto traditionally Republican territory – the evangelical university founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell – on Rosh Ha-Shanah in an attempt to showcase that his economic message could cut across party lines. But at the onset of the speech, he made abundantly clear that their views on social matters like gay rights and access to abortion are ones that there will be disagreement on.

“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 in trying to resolve them,” Sanders said. “It would be hard to make the case that we are a just society or anything resembling a just society today,” he continued. “In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. Injustice is rampant.”

In an interview with CNN, Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., praised Sanders for not shying away from sensitive issues and addressing them respectfully with his student body. And the younger Falwell, who is the president of the university, said he has invited other candidates to speak to his students, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He expects both to soon address a weekly convocation, which students are required to attend.

“We’re starting to get a little response from [Clinton’s] campaign, and it looks like it might materialize,” said Falwell after lunch with Sanders and his wife Jane. (A Clinton campaign official said the former secretary of state has not yet accepted the invite.)

During his speech, Sanders mainly stuck to his typical rhetoric, questioning the morality of billionaires who are growing richer as the working poor continues to struggle. He called for a dramatic increase in the minimum wage, universal health care, government-subsidized tuition at college and for more racially sensitive policing policies in African-American communities.

While there were some Sanders enthusiasts in the crowd, most of whom were not convinced by the self-described socialist’s economic and social agenda.

“The biggest inconsistency is the woman’s right to control her own body,” said Cameron Swathwood, a student here who attended the speech. “That assumes her body is the only one in question. … But if the unborn is in fact a human being which science and philosophy say it is, that killing the unborn is a grievous moral wrong.”

But in the speech, Sanders didn’t shy away.

“The views that many at Liberty University have, and I, on a number of important issues are very, very different,” Sanders said. “I believe in women’s rights and the right of a women to control her own body. I believe in gay rights and gay marriage. Those are my views and it is no secret.”

With Sanders’ support growing in national polling, including in critical early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is looking at the first Tuesday in March – known as Super Tuesday – to separate herself from Sanders and the rest of the Democratic pack. But Sanders’ appearance here in Virginia – where he also planned to hold Monday events in more progressive areas of the state – showcases how the Vermont independent is not ceding any of these critical Southern battleground states.

The self-described socialist from Vermont offered praise for the Lynchburg school, which earlier this year hosted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s entrance into the Republican presidential race.

“I am not a theologian, I am not an expert on the bible, nor am I a Catholic,” Sanders said. “I am just a United States senator from the small state of Vermont.”

CNN’s Theodore Schleifer contributed to this report.