(RNS) Just weeks before the Iowa caucus, GOP presidential contender Donald Trump is aiming his proudly “politically incorrect” anger and his pledge to be “great!” directly at evangelical Christians.
“I’m going to protect Christians,” who are losing their power in American society, he said Monday (Jan. 18), addressing 100,000 Liberty University students — packed in the Lynchburg, Va., campus sports arena or viewing online.
Trump, who was reared Presbyterian but has a freewheeling way of speaking of faith, cited Liberty as a place that has lived up to the biblical passage from 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
Trump is the fourth contender to speak at Liberty during this presidential election cycle, following in the footsteps of Republican contenders Sen. Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Democratic contender Sen. Bernie Sanders.
He was invited to address a session of the mandatory “convocation” held three times a week on the campus founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell to promote a “Christian worldview” in the power centers of society. The school is now led by Jerry Falwell Jr.
Past convocations, which can be viewed online, have featured politicians, business executives, star athletes, entertainers and opinion leaders such as Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.
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In March, Cruz bumped a scheduled appearance by the governor of Virginia to announce his candidacy to a standing ovation of cheering, flag-waving students. Although candidates have spoken at Liberty since the 1980s, Cruz was the first to announce his candidacy at the school.
Falwell made clear in introducing Cruz, the Southern Baptist son of a preacher, that the college, which prides itself on sending conservative Christians into politics, medicine and law, “does not does not support or oppose candidates for public office.”
Falwell praised Cruz, but those comments paled in comparison to his description of Trump on Monday as a charitable, loving, friendly business titan. Falwell likened Trump to his own father as the kind of entrepreneur the nation needs, “not a puppet on a string.”
While not quite endorsing him, Falwell said Trump and his father were men who spoke their minds, often in fearlessly politically incorrect ways. The Liberty founder once posted a billboard that touted, “Liberty University, politically incorrect since 1971.”
Trump, Falwell said, is “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.”
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Trump, who has spoken before at Liberty’s 12,000-seat arena, but not to such a big crowd, covered the familiar bases:
- He would win so much, people would almost get weary of “Win! Win! Win!”
- No more loser generals, he said referring to Army generals he sees insisting ISIS is hard to beat: “I want a general (who will) knock the hell out of them fast.”
- Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Obama administration officials are beholden to big money special interests. They are so “incompetent,” it’s not even a strong enough word, he said with an added barb for Clinton. “I want to see a woman president soon but not her, she’s a disaster.”
- On the campus where students are encouraged to carry concealed weapons, Trump proclaimed his unshakeable support for the 2nd Amendment. “Had bullets been doing the other way,” in Paris or San Bernardino, “the death toll would have been much lower.”
- China, 2,000 years ago, built the great wall.” And Trump said he plans to build an equally “serious wall,” along the Mexico border. It’s “simple” and reminded people that he is sure Mexico will pay for it.
Evangelical leader Russell Moore tweeted an acerbic observation:
Evangelicals can love a golden calf, as long as Aaron promises to make Mexico pay for it.
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) January 18, 2016
Trump pointed out how evangelicals have been betrayed in the past by politicians who made promises to gain their votes and turned their backs once elected.
But Mark Weaver, a business consultant in Fort Collins, Co., a registered independent and a “moderate evangelical,” sees too many Christian believers “manipulated” by politicians and “talking head media.”
He watched Trump’s speech Monday on his computer and he could see how all the fearful talk, particularly about refugees and immigration, could appeal to people concerned about security.
“A lot of those ‘healthy young men’ Trump spoke about may be Christians fleeing persecution,” said Weaver. I want to try to allow my world view to be shaped more by the Bible than by political talking heads.” And in his Bible, Weaver said he finds the call over and over to care for the poor, the orphaned, the widowed and the alien.
“A heart for God can mess up your politics,” said Weaver. “I don’t think Trump’s views represent God or all evangelical Christians.”
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According to The Washington Post, other leading Democrats — President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — have all “politely declined” invitations to Liberty.
(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national correspondent for Religion News Service)