Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Jan. 18. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
If you grew up going to an evangelical church, as I did, chances are you attended youth groups at which a leader asked everyone to name their favorite Bible verse.
When I was in middle school, I had a trusty Scripture ready for any such occasion: Proverbs 27:17. It’s nine words long, easy to memorize, and it was just substantive enough to let me skate by without any meddlesome questions about the state of my soul.
Donald Trump’s awkward Scripture recitation in front of a large evangelical audience Monday reminded me of those youth group days.
The Republican presidential candidate spoke at Liberty University Monday to an audience of roughly 13,000 people inside the school’s main events building, the Vines Center. Most in the audience were students required by school policy to attend a weekly convocation meeting.
After beginning his remarks with his usual mention of how well he is doing in polls, Trump tried to identify with his audience by talking about the issues he thinks matter most to them. As is his way, Trump moved to his topic abruptly.
“We’re going to go through New Hampshire, through South Carolina,” Trump said, discussing the early primary voting states. “We’re going to go right through the whole group, and I think we can do something really special. And we’re going to protect Christianity. And I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. We’re going to protect it.“
“I hear this is a major theme right here,” Trump added.
It seemed to be a reference to the religious liberty debate, which has boiled over in the wake of a Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and Obamacare’s contraception mandate. But Trump didn’t clarify. Instead, he brought out the Scripture verse he had chosen to share with the deeply religious crowd, who are accustomed to speakers citing the Bible and then talking at length about the “word of God.”
“Two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ball game,” Trump said, as laughter rippled through the audience, perhaps because most Christians refer to the book as “Second Corinthians.”
Trump then read the verse: “‘Where the spirit of the Lord — right? — Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ And here there is Liberty College, Liberty University. But it is so true. You know, when you think, that’s really — is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like because I loved it, and it’s so representative of what’s taking place. But we are going to protect Christianity.”
If Trump had been talking about religious liberty, he wasn’t now. He mentioned Christians in Syria who have been beheaded (the so-called Islamic State has killed Muslims and members of small religious sects as well). And he said that the Christian faith is “under siege.”
“Bad things are happening,” said Trump, before branching off into a discussion of what sounded more like religious identification along cultural or ethnic lines than the kind of devout faith that many American evangelicals are familiar with.
“I don’t know what it is, we don’t band together, maybe. Other religions, frankly, they’re banding together and they’re using it,” Trump said. “The power we have, somehow we have to unify, we have to band together, we have to do in a really large version what they’ve done at Liberty, because Liberty University has done that. You’ve banded together. You’ve created one of the great universities, colleges, anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and that’s what our country has to do that around Christianity. So, get together folks and let’s do it because we can do it.”
And that was all the religion Trump could stomach. He fled quickly back to discussing his own popularity. “No matter where I go, we’re having tremendous crowds and we’re setting records everywhere,” he said. Trump spent 45 more minutes on familiar material: his standard, rambling stump speech bashing President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the media and super-PACs, with an extra flourish on how he would negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program and the release of American hostages.
Trump’s handling of the Bible on Monday added to what is now a substantial list of comments indicating a superficial relationship, at best, with the words that Christians look to for guidance and spiritual sustenance.
Trump has compared the Bible to a “great, incredible movie.” He could not name a favorite verse or passage of Scripture when asked in August. Weeks later, his answer to that question was: “Proverbs, the chapter ‘never bend to envy.’” No such phrase exists in Proverbs, and so Trump was forced to clarify that he was talking about Proverbs 24, which begins with the words, “Do not envy the wicked.”
Last summer, he said he did not think he had ever asked God for forgiveness, a statement he repeated this past Sunday in an interview on CNN.
Even so, Trump continues to pull support from a significant percentage of evangelical voters in some polls. To some extent that’s because Trump has been inoculated by comments like those made before his speech Monday by Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr.
Falwell heaped praise on Trump during his 14-minute introduction. It was an implicit endorsement of his candidacy by the evangelical leader even though Falwell did not specifically say the word “endorse.” There were rumors that Falwell might endorse Trump in Iowa on Tuesday.
Falwell, one of two sons of the school’s now deceased founder, directly addressed concerns among evangelicals about Trump’s three marriages or his lack of familiarity with the faith. His father, Falwell said, was criticized for supporting Ronald Reagan in 1980 because he was “a Hollywood actor who’d been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher.”
“My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out that we are all sinners, every one of us,” Falwell said. “And while Jesus never told us who to vote for, he gave us all common sense to choose the best leaders. … Dad explained that when he walked into the voting booth, he wasn’t electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States, and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not always line up with those needed to run a church or lead a congregation.”
“After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look at what happened to our nation with him in the presidency,” Falwell said.
Falwell called Trump “one of the greatest visionaries of our time,” and asserted that the businessman and reality TV personality is loved by his staff because of his “servant leadership.”
“Donald Trump is a breath of fresh air,” Falwell said, “in a nation where the political establishment from both parties has betrayed [its] constituencies time and time again with broken promises and a continuation of the status quo.”
Falwell’s praise for Trump drew a stinging rebuke from a top leader in the Southern Baptist Church. Russell Moore, president of the church’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, watched a live stream video feed of Falwell’s introduction of Trump with mounting anger. After listening to Trump’s opening remarks on Christianity, Moore took to Twitter to comment on the proceedings.
“Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery,” Moore wrote. He added, “This would be hilarious if it weren’t so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ. #TrumpatLiberty”
And Moore described Falwell’s praise of Trump as “absolutely unbelievable.”
Moore expounded on his “trading in the gospel” comments for me after the speech. “The problem is not supporting Trump or any other candidate,” he explained. “The problem is with allowing Trump to present himself as a man of faith and character, without calling him out on both. Trump has said that he has nothing for which to seek forgiveness. This is despite leaving two wives for other women, destroying families with casino vice, and trafficking in ugly, racially charged rhetoric. Portraying this lost soul as a brother in Christ is not only doing wrong to Trump himself, it preaches an anti-gospel to all who hear. The gospel is about repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, not about excusing sin and injustice for the sake of political power.”
Another evangelical leader, not in a position to criticize Liberty openly because he does not speak for his organization publicly, said that the Trump appearance would “set Liberty back years.”
“Jerry’s intro alone will make [the university] the scorn of the evangelical world,” he said.