(RNS) Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late televangelist, endorsed Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, a move that will likely dismay GOP rival Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist who is banking on evangelical votes.
“He is a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again,” Falwell said in the statement released Tuesday (Jan. 26).
The news follows an unofficial Trump endorsement Saturday (Jan. 23) from an influential evangelical pastor from Cruz’s home state.
Robert Jeffress, who leads First Baptist Dallas, has been introducing Trump on the stump. As a pastor, Jeffress cannot officially endorse any candidate and maintain his church’s tax-exempt status. But he added:
“I want you to know I would not be here this morning if I were not absolutely convinced that Donald Trump would make a great president of the United States. … Most Americans know we are in a mess, and as they look at Donald Trump they believe he is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”
Trump called Falwell’s endorsement “powerful” and praised Falwell as “a high-quality person.”
Falwell gave Trump a particularly warm introduction last week at Liberty, which has hosted several presidential candidates, including Democrat Bernie Sanders, in past months. Cruz had kicked off his campaign at the Lynchburg, Va., campus.
The brash Trump, a Presbyterian not known for his spirituality, has been trying to burnish his religious credentials lately.
On Sunday (Jan. 24), he attended a Presbyterian service and heard a sermon about humility.
(Lauren Markoe is a national reporter for Religion News Service)