It’s become a truism this election season that whatever you expect to happen with Donald Trump, you’re probably wrong.
So add this to the list of surprises: On Monday, the thrice-married Republican frontrunner, who described himself as pro-choice as recently as 2000, traveled to the heart of conservative evangelism only to be greeted as a conquering hero.
Trump spoke at the Liberty University convocation on Martin Luther King Day. Liberty is the largest Christian university in the world, and marks the site where evangelical darling Texas Sen. Ted Cruz launched his campaign for president, and where even democratic socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pled his case.
So one might have expected that Trump, who declined to name his favorite Bible verse on the campaign trail, would have received a perfunctory welcome from the 11,000-seat auditorium at the school. Instead, university president Jerry Falwell Jr. called Trump a “breath of fresh air” in his introduction, comparing the Republican frontrunner to Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Falwell’s own father.
“In my opinion, Mr. Trump lives a life of loving and helping others … as Jesus taught in the New Testament,” Falwell said.
When Trump took the stage after Falwell’s fawning opening, he dedicated his “record” attendance at the convocation to Martin Luther King Jr. (It was a mandatory event for students).
Early on in his speech, Trump tailored his message to the crowd and emphasized the power of Christianity in the country.
“We’re going to protect Christianity,” he said, before quoting a Bible passage. “2 Corinthians, right? 2 Corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame. Where the spirit of the lord, right? Where the spirit of the lord is, there is liberty … It is so true.”
(When quoting the Bible passage, Trump said “two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians,” the correct way of saying it.)
“If you look what’s going on throughout the world … Christianity, it’s under siege,” Trump continued. “I’m Protestant, I’m very proud of it, Presbyterian to be exact, but I’m very proud of it … And we’ve got to protect because bad thing are happening … We don’t band together, maybe? Other religions frankly they’re banding together and they’re using it. If you look at this country, it’s gotta be 70 percent, 75 percent, some people say even more. The power we have, we have to unify. We have to band together, we have to do really in a really large version what they’ve done at Liberty.”
According to Pew Research, in 2015 about 70% of Americans identified as Christian.
Trump then launched in to a pretty standard version of his usual stump speech: bashing the Iran nuclear deal, praising the Second Amendment, calling to build a wall along the border, et cetera. He also vowed, “If I’m president you’re going to see Merry Christmas in department stores, believe me.”
Ted Cruz may have been the big loser of the morning. Trump has made clear at Liberty University and in other speeches that he plans to win Iowa, and to fight for the religious voters who have recently elevated his rival.
“I think we could really surprise a lot of people by winning Iowa,” Trump said. “And then we’re just going to clean the table.”
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