LYNCHBURG, Virginia — Evangelicals weren’t supposed to like Donald Trump. He’s boasted about never asking God for forgiveness, exhibited total biblical illiteracy, and had as many wives as an Old Testament patriarch.
But none of that matters. When the billionaire mogul spoke at Liberty University this morning, he got a rapturous welcome that showed just how much evangelicals love him—and why. The obsequiously warm reception he received may upend conventional wisdom about what conservative Christians want from their presidential candidates. And that’s great news for Trump.
Fox News morning programming warmed up the 11,000-strong crowd, and then the university’s hipster Christian worship band led students in song.
“We worship you today because you’re the great celebrity in this place,” prayed David Nasser, the school’s senior vice president for spiritual development, addressing God.
The boisterous crowd—some of whom woke up at 3:30 a.m. to get good seats—proceeded to worship Trump.
Trump’s performance certainly drew some sneers, especially when an attempt to pander fell flat after Trump mispronounced a biblical reference as “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” But despite that, his overwhelmingly warm reception confirms that he’s just as competitive as any other Republican among evangelical Christian voters.
This was not always obvious. Many conservative Christian power-brokers—including Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention—have harshly criticized Trump. And his calls for barring Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. worried many conservative Christians who prioritize issues of religious freedom. But that doesn’t matter.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the university president and son of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, introduced Trump to the crowd and left no doubt about his feelings for the golden-haired mogul.
“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment,” he said.
Then he compared Trump to Reagan.
“My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president, I should say, because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried, and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher,” Falwell said. “My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out that we are all sinners, every one of us.
“Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday School teacher,” Falwell added, “but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency.”
The implication was clear as a bell: Evangelical Christians shouldn’t stress about Trump’s personal life.
But Falwell didn’t just compare Trump to Reagan; he also said Trump reminded him of his father, generous and pragmatic. And he compared Trump’s presidential campaign to the university itself.
“I’m proud that Liberty is now strong enough financially to refuse gifts if they come with objectionable conditions,” he said. “And it is clear to me that Donald Trump is the only candidate in this national election to make that same claim. He cannot be bought. He is not a puppet on a string like many other candidates—”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
“He is not a puppet on a string like many other candidates who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters,” he continued, essentially indicting the entire rest of the Republican field.
The Trump/Liberty love is a mutual one. After sauntering on stage to sustained applause, Trump announced that the turnout at the event was a new record for a Liberty University convocation—perhaps unaware that student attendance at these weekly meetings is mandatory—and said he would dedicate the impressive feat to Martin Luther King Jr.
A spokeswoman for the university said 11,000 people attended the event and did not confirm if Trump actually broke a record or what the previous record was.
Trump said that being compared to Jerry Falwell the elder was “really an honor for me.” Then he reiterated his promise that department stores will say Merry Christmas if he becomes president (Christians love that, you know).
“I have friends that aren’t Christian,” he noted. “They like to say Merry Christmas, they love it, everybody loves it.”
He also noted that he is a big fan of the Bible, saying it is the only book to top The Art of the Deal.
“Everybody read The Art of the Deal,” he said. “Who has read The Art of the Deal in this room? Everybody. I always say, a deep deep second to the Bible.
“The Bible blows it away,” he added. “There’s nothing like the Bible.”
He spent the bulk of the speech talking about Iran, the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, and the sad mendacity of the national media (“Twenty-five percent are good. Two percent are great.”). Said sad national media, he argued, has failed to report on just how much support Trump has won.
“You’re not getting a real picture of the silent majority, which Jerry Sr. had something to do,” he said. “And that’s a phrase you should be really cognizant of. Because it is a silent majority, but I think I’m gonna up it a little bit because it’s no longer so silent. It’s really a noisy majority.”
Trump wasn’t especially articulate there, but the appeal was clear: His success isn’t a fluke. Rather, the implication was that Trump’s supporters come from a long tradition of grassroots conservatives who seek to use the political process to change cultural norms (see Christmas, War On).
And Trump’s pitch was perfect.
“He spoke to the Liberty audience and culture almost as if he was a part of it,” said Johnnie Moore, former senior vice president at the school, “as if he had been a part of it—a graduate or an alumnus or someone who had had kids go there.”
Moore said that’s because—despite his “Two Corinthians” flub—he came off as authentic.
“Not a single person in that crowd this morning thought, I wonder if he’s lying to me,” Moore said.
He noted that evangelical Christians have two basic approaches to politics: Some want candidates to have as much in common with them as possible—they embrace long-shot contenders like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum because they share their identical convictions about Christianity’s role in public life. The Falwells aren’t in that school of thought. Rather, they like winners, even if that means backing candidates who used to be pro-choice and have a few divorces under their belt. That’s why Jerry Falwell Sr. made good with John McCain after the Arizonan called him an “agent of intolerance,” and it’s why their family was so undyingly loyal to the Bushes—even as George H. W. Bush struggled to win evangelical support.
The Falwell family hasn’t lost its single-minded interest in winning, and that’s why Jerry Jr. had such kind words for Trump.
“It was clear that he would be extremely comfortable if Trump was the candidate,” Moore said.
This should surprise no one. In 2012, a few months before Obama’s re-election, Trump spoke at the university for the first time. Jerry Jr. praised his most controversial stances in an affectionate introduction.
“In 2011, after failed attempts by Senator John McCain and Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump singlehandedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate,” Falwell said, dead serious. And the students roared.
Trump’s speech that year was a little bawdier; he encouraged students to get prenups (“I won’t say it here because you people don’t get divorced, right? Nobody gets divorced! OK, so I will not say have a prenuptial agreement to anybody in this room!”) and he stirred controversy by telling them to “get even” with people who wrong them. Luke 6:29 definitely isn’t Trump’s favorite Bible verse.
Despite that, Jerry Falwell Jr. practically begged him to run.
“It’s not too late to get back in the presidential race, is it?” Falwell said after that 2012 speech.
And now Trump is in, and Falwell seems to love it. This puts him a bit at odds with other evangelical leaders; a coterie of conservative Christian influencers secretly agreed last month to coalesce behind Ted Cruz, as National Review reported. But Falwell is hedging. Cruz, who announced his presidential campaign last year in the same room where Trump spoke, might be more faithful than Trump, and he might not have been married a bunch of times, and he might have that neat Harvard Law degree. But that doesn’t necessarily make him a winner.
Students at the school shared Falwell’s energy for the candidate. Five bros wore shirts that spelled out the word TRUMP—one letter per T-shirt—and spent the time before the event posing for photos and fielding media questions. Others woke up early to get front-row seats for the mogul’s speech.
Christian Malave, a student at the university, said he likes Trump’s attitude.
“He just thinks about everyone before himself,” he said. “And yet he has the most money in the world.”
Sophomore Emma Jerore and Freshman Mary-Madison Goforth said they were in line for the speech by 6 a.m. so they could get good seats.
“He’s a very wise businessman,” Goforth said.
Jerore said she is trying to pick between Rubio and Trump. Goforth said she faced the same dilemma.
“Today definitely motivated me a little more towards Trump’s side,” she said.
“We both got to shake his hand, so that was, I mean, enough in itself,” she added.
A number of students said they were trying to decide between Trump and Cruz. Brian Teague, a sophomore studying aviation who sported a Trump T-shirt, said Carson lost support when news broke in early December that he doesn’t believe in hell.
“A lot of people were leaning towards him because he was so humble, you know, his morals,” Teague said. “But when he left the idea of hell, I think that’s when he lost a lot of people.”
That said, Liberty isn’t all Trumpkins. Caleb Fitzpatrick, a freshman from Tampa, Florida, said he thinks the billionaire is the worst Republican candidate.
“I think he has no idea what’s going on in the world,” he said. “I think he’s arrogant, I think he’s a narcissist, I think he’s perverted.”
Still, students gave Trump an adoring welcome. If Trump wants to build a new moral majority, he’ll know where to find footsoldiers.