LYNCHBURG, Va. – Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump pledged to protect Christianity while still maintaining his disdain for political correctness Monday, but he didn’t get a rousing response from his audience at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian college.
“Christianity is under siege,” Trump said in his speech to the more than 9,000 students and community members in this Southern Virginia city. “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.”
“The power we (Christians) have – somehow we have to unify, we have to band together,” Trump said, calling on the college students to unite. “We have to do really, in a really large version, what they’re doing at Liberty.”
Trump’s visit to the evangelical Christian university two weeks before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus could help him with Iowa voters because the university serves as a hub for Christian conservative politics.
In the past year it has hosted GOP candidates Ted Cruz, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Dr. Ben Carson. In fact, Cruz launched his campaign at the school. Trump himself is no stranger to the university; he spoke there in 2012.
Last week some Liberty students had objected to the timing of Trump’s speech because it fell on Martin Luther King Day. On Monday, a group of students organized a peaceful protest outside Vines Center where Trump spoke.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the school’s founder, addressed head-on the criticism that Trump does not line up with the university’s mission, describing how his father, televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., chose to vote for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election.
“He was electing the president of the United States whose talent, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not always line up with those needed to run a church,” Falwell said.
While Falwell shied from endorsing Trump and the university does not endorse candidates, he did compare his father’s and Trump’s work ethics and politically incorrect personalities.
“While Jesus never told us who to vote for, he gave us all common sense to choose the best leader,” Falwell remembered his father saying.
Trump’s friendship with the Falwell family is an unlikely one because Trump focuses more on economic, defense and immigration policy, and less on Christian conservative hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
“He’s not particularly believable as a Christian conservative, and that’s what Ted Cruz was getting at with the ‘New York values’ comment,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election newsletter produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But if you look at polls, Trump is doing well across the ideological spectrum.”
That includes Christian conservatives. Although Trump differs from evangelicals in policy priorities, a recent NBC poll showed that he has support from 33 percent of white evangelical voters, placing him ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio and Cruz.
In addition to trying to win over more Christian conservatives before the Iowa caucuses, Kondik said, the Liberty speech helps Trump because Virginia is a battleground state for Republicans on Super Tuesday — March 1 since it is not as conservative as Southern states and not as moderate as Northern ones.
Toward the end of the speech, a Trump supporter wearing a cowboy hat and long leather coat stood up and yelled, “You make us proud to be an American again.”
That supporter, Scott Knuth from Springfield, Va., took the day off from work to attend his fourth Trump event.
“I just wish the rest of the country could see that he really wants what’s best for America,” said Knuth, a 49-year-old Christian. “This is about more than just about religion, and he’s given so many of us excitement for what’s to come in America.”