Donald Trump will speak at Liberty University’s first convocation this year, addressing thousands of young evangelicals on Jan. 18 when students return to campus.
Liberty University has served as a a hub for conservative politics, owing much of its rapid growth to federal student loans made possible by President Obama. Several evangelical leaders have frantically searched for ways to defeat Trump in the GOP presidential primaries by supporting other candidates, but Liberty will be welcoming Trump with open arms.
Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., has generally stayed out of the political spotlight — unlike his late father, who founded the school. But Falwell made waves in December for urging students to carry concealed weapons so “we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” clarifying later that he was referring to the November attacks in Paris and the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.
On a recent Fox News segment, Falwell said his three favorite presidential contenders are Republicans Trump, Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). “I think Trump reminds me so much of my father,” Falwell said on the show. “He says exactly what he thinks no matter what anybody cares.”
Jerry Falwell Sr. was an architect of the old Religious Right and one of the first megachurch leaders to develop a large media following in the 20th century. He was known for his charisma, his activism and his controversial remarks. After Sept. 11, 2001, Falwell Sr. blamed abortion providers, feminists, gays and the American Civil Liberties Union for the terrorist attacks, later apologizing for his remarks. During the primary season, Trump has targeted “political correctness,” channeling a widespread frustration among Republican voters.
Most GOP presidential contenders in recent years have spoken at Liberty, usually at its thrice-weekly chapel, which is held in a 12,000-seat sports arena and also watched by thousands of its 95,000 online students. The convocation is mandatory for its residential students. The convocation will be open to the public, with a reserved section for local residents who want to attend.
Last year, Cruz launched his campaign at Liberty, Jeb Bush spoke at the school’s convocation, and Carson and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders spoke at convocation.
Although Trump has led nationally in the polls, he has faced competition for evangelical votes in the early primary states. Last month, a CNN/ORC poll showed that among Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers, 26 percent favor Cruz, 24 percent back Trump, 20 percent prefer Carson and 12 percent back Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).
Trump last spoke at Liberty’s convocation in September 2012, when he shared the stage with former Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann, according to the News-Advance. Falwell said he contacted Republican candidates in December to see if they would participate in a candidates forum. A number of candidates said they would only commit to the debate if Trump was a part of it, he said, and Trump’s staff replied they would rather Trump visit by himself at Liberty.
Falwell’s son was married last October at the Trump Winery in Charlottesville, where Trump’s son, Eric, is president of the vineyard, the News-Advance reports.
Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, which he reiterated in his first television ad this week, has been condemned by Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore.
Evangelicals play a large role in the GOP primaries, especially in states like Iowa and South Carolina. In the past, Trump has tried to appeal to conservative religious voters by posting his childhood confirmation photo on Instagram, declaring the Bible as superior to his own book and sharing personal stories.
Last month, Trump declared in Iowa, “I am an evangelical. I’m a Christian. I’m a Presbyterian.”
Trump joked about his opponent Cruz, making a vague reference to Cuba, the home country of Cruz’s father. “I do like Ted Cruz — but not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba, in all fairness,” Trump said. “It’s true. Not a lot come out. But I like him nevertheless.”
Trump self-identifies as a Presbyterian, referring to the mainline Protestant Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination. Trump grew up attending First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, N.Y. Last month, members of a church in Trump’s presbytery, a regional group of churches, voted to ask national leaders of the denomination to reconsider his membership.
Trump said in August that he went to Marble Collegiate Church, part of the Reformed Church in America denomination, and expressed admiration for the church’s late pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, the author of the self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” The church later released a statement saying Trump is not an active member.
At a Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, last summer, Trump was questioned about whether he asks God for forgiveness.
“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “If I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Trump also said at the event that he participates in Holy Communion. “When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said, according to CNN. “I think in terms of ‘Let’s go on and let’s make it right.’”