Government

At Liberty U., Trump Aligns with ‘Outsider’ Evangelicals

May 13, 2017

Brendan Smialowski, AFP, Getty Images
President Trump prepares to speak at Liberty U. on Saturday. The president’s acceptance of the invitation to give the evangelical Christian institution’s commencement address solidifies a partnership and friendship with Jerry Falwell Jr., the university’s president.

Returning to Liberty University for the first time since his election, President Trump gave a commencement address here Saturday that entwined ideas of religious freedom with the anti-establishment fervor that propelled him into office.

"In America," he said, "we don’t worship government; we worship God."

“The future belongs to the people who follow their heart no matter what the critics say, because they truly believe in their vision.”

For President Trump and Jerry L. Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president and an early supporter of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, the event solidified a political partnership and a burgeoning friendship that has been built on a mutual distaste for political correctness and convention. That common ethos has at times positioned both men in opposition to much of higher education, where careful language and cultural sensitivity are deeply embedded and highly valued.

Introducing President Trump, Mr. Falwell lumped "academia" in with a phalanx of forces that he said have unfairly sought to undermine Mr. Trump.

"He deserves our respect and admiration for enduring relentless and often dishonest attacks from the media, the establishment on the left and the right, and from academia," Mr. Falwell said.

"Our president’s enemies," he continued, "need to once again begin practicing the tolerance they so often preach."

In a speech that largely appeared to stick to a script, President Trump cast Liberty’s undergraduates as outsiders like himself, who would go on to prove the know-it-alls wrong.

"In my short time in Washington I’ve seen firsthand how the system is broken," he said. "A small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think. But you aren’t going to let other people tell you what to believe, especially when you know that you’re right."

Mr. Trump’s speech came amid one of the biggest firestorms of his presidency. Since his firing of James B. Comey Jr., director of the FBI, the president has faced mounting criticism for sidelining a man who was heading up an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. President Trump made no overt mention of the controversy in his remarks here, but his railing against naysayers of all kinds played as a ready allusion to his current travails.

"Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic," he said. "Because they are people who can’t get the job done. But the future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics. The future belongs to the people who follow their heart no matter what the critics say, because they truly believe in their vision."

Mr. Trump was interrupted several times by applause, his voice booming across Williams Stadium. Among 18,000 graduates, 16,000 of whom were online students, several carried with them "Make America Great Again" hats.

Some Liberty students have been vocal in their opposition to Mr. Trump, who they say does not share their Christian values. But there was no visible signs of opposition or protest at the ceremony.

It has been a tradition for presidents in their first years in office to deliver commencement addresses at the University of Notre Dame, but thousands of students, faculty and alumni petitioned the university not to invite President Trump. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence has been selected to give the keynote speech.

For a speech that honored Liberty graduates, there was a fair amount of talk Saturday about Notre Dame. Mr. Falwell’s father, the late Rev. Jerry L. Falwell Sr., often expressed hope that Liberty would become to evangelicals what Notre Dame is to Catholics. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Falwell seemed to relish that President Trump was speaking "not at Notre Dame, but at Liberty University."

“Being an outsider is fine. Embrace that label, because it's the outsiders who change the world.”

For his part, President Trump described Liberty’s "world class football team, much like the great teams of Notre Dame."

The president was at his most freewheeling when discussing football. Liberty is on a path to play in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the NCAA’s highest level, where in future years the Flames will face powerhouse opponents, including Auburn University.

"Auburn," President Trump quipped. "Jerry, are you sure you know what you’re doing? This could be trouble, Jerry."

With few exceptions, the president’s speech was short on the sort of self-congratulatory remarks for which he is known. There was a reference to a record crowd at the commencement, but otherwise he kept the focus on the accomplishments of the Class of 2017 and their families.

President Trump argued that the students’ nontraditional postsecondary education, whether it was obtained through an online program or on a residential campus that strictly adheres to an evangelical code of conduct, was an asset unavailable to those at more traditional colleges.

"Being an outsider is fine," President Trump said. "Embrace that label, because it’s the outsiders who change the world."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.