Liberty University, where Donald Trump will deliver the commencement address this weekend, was not exactly a hotbed of support for the mogul during his unlikely rise to the presidency. His appearance there in January of 2016 is mainly remembered for his mangled “Two Corinthians” Bible verse citation, which drew guffaws from the scripturally sophisticated student audience. In Virginia’s March 2016 Republican presidential primary, Trump finished a poor fourth in Liberty’s voting precinct, even though he won statewide and also carried the congressional district in which the conservative Evangelical school is located. And even during the general election there was an uproar when approximately 2,000 people connected with Liberty signed an open letter complaining that they were “tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.”
That association, of course, was largely attributable to Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who was one of the first and most outspoken conservative Evangelical boosters for Trump. So now it is almost certainly a source of vindication for Falwell, the son and heir of the man who founded Liberty, that he can bring Trump back to campus as president of the United States, and thus as something of a trophy.
Despite all the uproar of the election season, Liberty ultimately surrendered to Trump, as did an estimated 80 percent of self-identified white Evangelical voters. Now everything’s hunky-dory, as the Washington Post reports:
If Trump needed a safe space to deliver his first commencement address, he would be hard-pressed to find a more accommodating school. At the University of Notre Dame, where presidents are often invited to speak during their first year in office, the prospect of a Trump address sparked vociferous protests. The prominent Catholic university ultimately invited Vice President Pence to speak….
At Liberty, an evangelical university with a pronounced conservative political bent, Trump will be in friendlier territory. Students at the school, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southern Virginia, voted overwhelmingly for Trump in November. Of the 3,205 votes cast on campus, Trump took 2,739. Democrat Hillary Clinton received just 140.
Falwell has been loud and proud about Trump’s payback to this constituency. Even as other Christian right folk muttered publicly and privately about the underwhelming nature of the president’s recent executive order on “religious liberty,” Falwell said it showed the Trump was a “dream president” for Evangelicals. The man is sure on message for Team Trump.
It will be interesting to see if Trump reciprocates with something he has never been able to deliver in religious venues: a theologically competent statement of religious belief that takes some of the abiding bad odor among the faithful away from Trump’s infamous denial that he needed divine forgiveness.
But perhaps the president feels he’s doing just fine with conservative Christians by keeping his relationship with them (and presumably, with God) on a purely transactional basis. It is, after all, working out nicely for Jerry Falwell Jr.