President Donald Trump outlined a deeply religious vision of America while speaking to graduates of a conservative Christian college on Saturday, invoking his own version of Christian nationalism and touting policies friendly to right-wing faithful.
Trump received a warm welcome at Liberty University, the largest Christian college in America, where most students claim a conservative evangelical faith. The venue was an especially safe one for the president, as white evangelicals offered Trump resounding support on Election Day and still view his presidency favorably. What’s more, Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. has been a longtime backer of Trump — recently describing him as a “dream president for evangelicals” — and lauded him during his introduction for taking action on issues dear to right-wing faithful such as appointing a conservative Supreme Court justice.
Trump’s previous visit to Liberty during the campaign resulted in a much-maligned gaffe when he referred to a book of the Bible as “Two Corinthians” (it is traditionally described as “Second Corinthians”). This time, however, the president took a more polished approach: As some graduates looked on donned in Make America Great Again hats, he proclaimed a faith-fueled version of American history and society, lifting up a version of Christian nationalism he first introduced during his speech at Inauguration Day.
“In America we don’t worship government, we worship God,” Trump proclaimed, to thunderous applause.
“America is a nation of true believers…When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they prayed,” he said. “It’s why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation, under God, every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
“In America we don’t worship government, we worship God,” Trump proclaimed, to thunderous applause. He later added: “We all bleed the same blood of patriots, we all salute the same, great American flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God.”
The address also appeared to connect religion to the president’s willingness to increase military action in the Middle East, such as dropping the MOAB bomb on Afghanistan. Falwell in particular praised Trump for “bomb[ing] those…who were persecuting Christians,” and the president noted during his speech that Americans will be “hearing a lot about [military actions] next week from our generals.”
— Sarah McCammon NPR (@sarahmccammon) May 13, 2017
Meanwhile, Trump’s address comes roughly a week after he signed an executive order on “religious liberty” which, among other things, chipped away at laws prohibiting tax-exempt faith communities from endorsing political candidates. The order was blasted by many conservative leaders for not going far enough, but Trump nonetheless championed it as a victory for evangelicals.
“A lot of people are very happy…especially last week — we did some very important signings,” he said, describing Liberty students as “Champions of Christ.” He later added: “As long as I am president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith, or preaching what’s in your heart.”
But while the line played well with the Liberty crowd, the policy isn’t popular with people of faith in America. According to a 2016 PRRI poll, majorities of every major religious group — including white evangelicals — oppose letting religious communities maintain their tax-exempt status while backing politicians in the pulpit. In fact, 99 different faith groups signed on to a letter in April asking Congress not to politicize their congregations.
Meanwhile, Falwell’s robust support for Trump — which included standing by him after a video was unearthed of the businessman bragging about sexual assault — has also been controversial. When he formally endorsed Trump in May 2016, a member of the school’s board of trustees spoke out against the then-candidate, saying his campaign is not “Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.” He eventually resigned from the board in protest, saying he cannot support the Falwell’s endorsement.
Falwell’s endorsement spurred some conservatives to call for him to step down, with Red State writer Ben Howe describing the college president’s support for Trump a “disgrace.” Erick Erickson, longtime conservative radio host and head of RedState, also told ThinkProgress at the time that he agreed Falwell should step down.
Liberty students also condemned Trump during the campaign, with one publishing his thoughts in the Daily Beast when Falwell reportedly refused to allow an op-ed critical of the then-candidate run in the school newspaper. Falwell defended the decision, but a group of students soon formed Liberty United Against Trump, launching a online petition for those “disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.”
The petition eventually garnered more than 3,200 signatures, and organizers noted that Trump received only 90 votes from Liberty students during the Republican primary in Virginia, placing fourth behind Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson.