Update (May 13): President Donald Trump told a roaring crowd at Liberty University’s commencement to follow their Christian convictions, even when it means feeling like an outsider or taking a stand against the establishment.
“Being an outsider is fine. Embrace the label, because it’s the outsiders who change the world and make a lasting difference,” Trump told the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus during his first visit as president Saturday morning. “Be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures. Does that sound familiar, by the way?”
In front of a record-setting crowd of about 50,000 attendees, the newly minted politician winked to his support from white evangelicals—repeatedly bringing up religious freedom and identifying with their position as Washington outsiders by critiquing the “broken” system and leaders “who think they know everything.”
“In America, we do not worship government, we worship God. We do not need a lecture from Washington on how to lead our lives,” he said to the graduates. “As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what is in your heart.”
Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr., a member of Trump’s faith advisory board, has buddied up to the president and recently attended a White House dinner and Rose Garden ceremony announcing Trump’s executive order on religious liberty.
Liberty University has a lot to celebrate this weekend. At a ceremony honoring its 18,000 graduates, America’s largest Christian college will be the first to hear commencement remarks from President Donald Trump.
Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. invited Trump to town for graduation back in December, and his admiration has only grown during the early months of the Trump administration, recently telling Fox News that “evangelicals have found their dream President.”
An early endorser, Falwell continues to be Trump’s faithful adviser and ally, and much of Liberty reflects his enthusiasm. The school has prepared for a “Trump bump” in attendance, spending $200,000 to nearly double the stadium’s seating capacity to 36,000.
Trump’s speech on Saturday marks his third address at the campus in Lynchburg, Virginia. It will be the second graduation speech at Liberty by a sitting president, following George H. W. Bush’s to the Class of 1990. The new president will also serve as the speaker at the Coast Guard Academy ceremony on Wednesday.
“I’d love to hear him talk to the students about what he plans to do for them to make it a better job market, to make the United States a better place for them to raise their families,” Falwell told The Washington Post. “And then I’d like him to tell them what he needs them to do to help him make America great again.”
Few Christian leaders have been as vocally supportive of the Trump administration as Falwell. Marking the President’s first 100 days in office, Falwell listed several “things that evangelicals love” so far: Trump’s relationship with Israel, new Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, Cabinet appointments, and approach to fighting ISIS.
As much as some may quibble with his characterization of Trump as evangelical’s “dream” leader, the latest polls show more white evangelicals side with Falwell than with the detractors.
At this point, white evangelicals are twice as likely as Americans on average to approve of the new president, according to a report released last month by the Pew Research Center. Surveying Trump’s performance so far, 78 percent of white evangelicals are on his side. (For comparison, the same demographic indicated a 72 percent approval rating for George W. Bush early in his presidency.)
Trump’s rating was even higher—80 percent approval—among white evangelicals who attend church at least once a month. Despite speculation during the campaign that Trump’s evangelical support didn’t reflect faithful churchgoers, Pew confirmed that this was indeed a key voting bloc for Trump: Three-quarters said they had intended to vote for him.
In Politico-Morning Consult’s report card poll for the President’s first 100 days, a little over half of evangelicals gave Trump high marks. Their ratings fell somewhere between voters overall (39% gave him an A or B) and Trump supporters (75% gave him an A or B).
Evangelicals graded Trump higher than other religious groups, but just barely. Grades issued by all Protestants, all Christians, and Catholics were just a few percentage points lower (respectively, 51%, 46%, 44% gave him an A or B). His approval levels remained steady among Christian groups in the most recent Politico-Morning Consult poll, conducted following the controversial firing of James Comey, Trump’s FBI director this week.
Vice President Mike Pence will also be offering commencement addresses at a pair of religious schools later this month: the University of Notre Dame and Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school in Pennsylvania.
Catholic Notre Dame traditionally asks the new President to serve as commencement speaker in his first year, but opted to invite Pence—who has a Catholic background but now attends evangelical churches—instead. His planned visit to campus has still elicited controversy, particularly from LGBT rights groups.
According to Politico, just over half of Catholics support the new leadership in the White House, though slightly more approve of Trump (54%) than Pence (52%).
At Grove City, the student body holds mixed views on Pence’s politics, according to the school newspaper. But most are excited to host such a high-profile figure at the 2,500-student campus.
Nearly two-thirds of evangelicals hold a favorable view of Pence. He won points with Christians when he spoke up on behalf of the persecuted church at a summit convened by Franklin Graham this week and with pro-life voters when he became the first vice president to speak at the annual March for Life in Washington. According to reports, he now leads weekly prayer gatherings among Christians on Trump’s Cabinet.
As far as specific policy areas, evangelicals rated Trump’s contributions to fighting terrorism and the economy the highest and health care policy the lowest. Their dampened support on health care is significant. Like Americans overall, most evangelical voters saw this issue as the president’s top priority in office.
Though Trump has pledged to dismantle the Affordable Care Act set up under Barack Obama, that’s expected to take awhile, and the administration’s replacement plan remains unclear. Though Trump’s Justice Department has extended cases of Christian organizations trying to secure exemptions from the Obamacare contraception mandate, his recent executive order requested that the regulations be amended.
But Trump has come through on other issues related to abortion, including allowing states to defund Planned Parenthood and reinstating a ban on funding abortion advocates overseas. In April, he appointed Charmaine Yoest, an evangelical pro-life activist who used to lead Americans United for Life, to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Most evangelicals gave Trump an A or B on immigration in the Politico-Morning Consult poll, despite significant backlash from church and organizational leaders over his executive order on refugees. More than 500 evangelical leaders signed a letter opposing the ban, which is now being hashed out in court.