“Nothing is easier and more pathetic than being a critic, because they’re people that can’t get the job done,” President Donald Trump said from the podium at Liberty University on Saturday morning.
The line, delivered by the leader of the free world—who has criticized via his Twitter account everyone from Rosie O’Donnell to recently fired FBI Director James Comey—was delivered in a commencement speech rife with generalized aphorisms and motivational quotes one might see on a local yoga studio’s Instagram account.
Trump arrived in Lynchburg, Virginia, capping what was perhaps the most hectic week in a hectic presidency, to a largely welcoming environment—one which the thrice-married real estate mogul had already partially wooed in the 2016 election. He was flanked onstage by Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty, who wholeheartedly endorsed Trump and helped shepherd some 80 percent of white evangelical voters to the ballot box on his behalf.
"As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith," Trump said to the crowd of newly minted graduates. He had already delivered, at least symbolically, on a promise he made the last time he spoke at the university as a candidate in January 2016.
"We're going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don't have to be politically correct,” Trump said at the time, at which point he also referred to one of the books of the Bible as “Two Corinthians.”
With an executive order signed in early May, the president attempted to allow churches and other religious organizations to get more politically active, emphasizing that the policy of the administration was to “vigorously promote religious liberty.” It directed the IRS not to take “adverse action” against religious organizations engaging in political activities excluding the outright endorsement of a political candidate.
Under the 1954 Johnson Amendment, churches and tax-exempt religious organizations were already subject to such restrictions which led some Evangelical Christian leaders like Russell Moore to view the new executive order as “more symbolic than substantive.”
But symbolism was perhaps enough as Trump decided to give his first commencement address at Liberty as opposed to the traditional presidential address at Notre Dame’s commencement. Vice President Mike Pence will be doing the honors instead this year.
Throughout the speech, Trump seemed to connect the well-worn ideas of facing challenges as fresh-faced college graduates to his successful insurgency to the Oval Office and subsequent battles to justify impulsive decisions like firing Comey in the midst of an ongoing investigation.
“Nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy. Following your convictions means you must be willing to face criticism from those who lack the same courage to do what is right—and they know what is right, but they don’t have the courage or the guts or the stamina to take it and to do it,” Trump said. “It’s called the road less traveled.”
And the president himself has in fact taken criticism from the student body he was addressing. In October of last year, The Daily Beast reported that more than 1,000 Liberty students signed a letter criticizing Falwell Jr. for his continued support of Trump after the release of an Access Hollywood tape in which the president boasted about grabbing women by the genitals.
“A recently uncovered tape revealed his comments bragging about sexually assaulting women,” it read. “Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense—taking the name ‘Liberty University’ with him.”
Subsequently another student at the university claimed that an anti-Trump column he wrote for the paper was axed. Falwell Jr. would go on to deny that he pulled the column because it was explicitly voicing opposition to Trump and that he accepted Trump’s apology for the comments he made in the video.
“When you choose a president, you’re not choosing a pastor. You’re choosing somebody who is best suited to run the country,” he said. “If they have not been perfect all their lives and they’ve said things they regretted and they apologized for, and they still represent your values and still are more qualified and better suited to run the country, you have to make a choice.”
And Falwell did make a choice—to stand by Trump as a candidate and now the president, giving him a warm welcome, an honorary degree and a reprieve from the turmoil in Washington D.C.