At Lib­erty’s com­mence­ment, a safe and free fo­rum for Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JOE HEIM

It’s exam week at Lib­erty Univer­sity and ev­ery­where are signs of last-minute cram­ming. Study groups are bunched around ta­bles inside the stu­dent union. The Jerry Fal­well Li­brary is un­usu­ally packed. And the weekly cam­pus wor­ship ser­vice has been post­poned to al­low more time to study.

But fi­nal ex­ams aren’t the only tests fac­ing the out­wardly placid cam­pus this week.

Stu­dents at the na­tion’s largest Chris­tian univer­sity are also pre­par­ing for the ar­rival of President Trump, who is to de­liver the com­mence­ment ad­dress for the Class of 2017 on May 13. He will be the first in­cum­bent president to speak at the school’s com­mence­ment since Ge­orge H.W. Bush in 1990.

If Trump needed a safe space to de­liver his first com­mence­ment ad­dress, he would be hard­pressed to find a more ac­com­mo­dat­ing school. At the Univer­sity of Notre Dame, where pres­i­dents are of­ten in­vited to speak dur­ing their first year in of­fice, the prospect of a Trump ad­dress sparked vo­cif­er­ous protests. The prom­i­nent Catholic univer­sity ul­ti­mately in­vited Vice President Pence to speak.

At Lib­erty, an evan­gel­i­cal univer­sity with a pro­nounced con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal bent, Trump will be in friend­lier ter­ri­tory. Stu­dents at the school, nes­tled in the Blue Ridge Moun­tains of South­ern Vir­ginia, voted over­whelm­ingly for Trump in Novem­ber. Of the 3,205 votes cast on cam­pus, Trump took 2,739. Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton re­ceived just 140. Trump also had the back­ing of Lib­erty President Jerry Fal­well Jr., whose early and vig­or­ous sup­port helped him nav­i­gate the na­tional thicket of con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian vot­ers.

In in­ter­views with dozens of

stu­dents, the over­whelm­ing re­ac­tion to Trump’s im­pend­ing visit is a sense of pride that the president chose their school for his first ad­dress to new col­lege grad­u­ates. But mixed with the en­thu­si­asm and ex­cite­ment is a sense of ap­pre­hen­sion and cau­tion. They won­der: What will he say? And what will Amer­ica think about them?

Some doubts about the president linger here. Though Trump crushed Clin­ton among cam­pus vot­ers, he fin­ished a dis­tant fourth in the Lib­erty precinct in Vir­ginia’s Repub­li­can pri­mary, cap­tur­ing 8 per­cent of the vote and trail­ing Sen. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), both evan­gel­i­cal fa­vorites.

John Wood, a ju­nior from Upland, Calif., and chair­man of the Col­lege Repub­li­cans at Lib­erty, went through Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker, Cruz and Ru­bio on his jour­ney to be­com­ing a Trump sup­porter. But the 21-year-old, who has been told more than once that he looks a bit like Elvis Pres­ley, is thrilled that his fourth choice is set to de­liver the com­mence­ment speech.

“Hav­ing a sit­ting president make his first com­mence­ment ad­dress at your univer­sity is awe­some,” Wood said.

Wood added that Trump’s visit is a sig­nal that the school de­serves to be taken se­ri­ously.

“It’s a step to­ward es­tab­lish­ing us as a top-tier, le­git­i­mate school,” he says. “There are a lot of peo­ple who still see Lib­erty as not a le­git­i­mate in­sti­tute of higher learn­ing, which we are.”

Isaac Deal, 20, a sopho­more from Clay­ton, Ga., echoed the feel­ings of many.

“I think it’s an awe­some, on­cein-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity,” Deal said. “He is our au­thor­ity and he is our leader, no mat­ter what you think of his poli­cies.”

Se­niors Mered­ith Boyce, 22, of Rochester, Minn., and Han­nah Kuster, 22, of Louisville, both voted for Trump. Aside from pos­si­ble lo­gis­ti­cal headaches of se­cu­rity screen­ings for a pres­i­den­tial visit, they are ex­pect­ing a mem­o­rable and en­joy­able com­mence­ment. Like Wood, they think that Trump’s ap­pear­ance will help put Lib­erty on the map. But they are also a bit ner­vous.

“There’s def­i­nitely some ap­pre­hen­sion be­cause he can say crazy things,” Boyce said. “I’m just pray­ing no one does any­thing stupid.”

Caleb Brown, 21, a ju­nior from High Point, N.C., says he con­sid­ers it a bless­ing that Trump is com­ing. But he is look­ing for more than just a stump speech.

“As long as he puts Amer­ica be­fore him­self, he’ll do a lot more ABOVE: Jeff Jack­son, left, treks with his chil­dren Phoenix, 4, cen­ter, and Reign, 3, on a walk­ing path as the sun sets over Lib­erty Univer­sity and the Blue Ridge Moun­tains of South­ern Vir­ginia. good than if he is just about his ego,” Brown said. “I want him to be spe­cific, not just more rhetoric.”

For some mi­nor­ity stu­dents, dis­agree­ments with Trump are sharper.

Nurs­ing stu­dent Deliani Velez walked with her friends Laina Mar­ble and Jenna Reitz along Univer­sity Drive, where speak­ers at­tached to lamp­posts de­liver low-deci­bel Chris­tian pop and hymns as stu­dents tra­verse the cam­pus. Velez will be at Lib­erty dur­ing com­mence­ment but won’t at­tend the cer­e­mony, which is open to all stu­dents.

“I con­sider my­self a fem­i­nist and I’m His­panic, so that clashes a lot with Trump,” said Velez, 19, a sopho­more from Spring­field, Mass. “I’m not really stoked about it.”

Joshua Abra­hams, 20, a fresh­man from Man­hat­tan, is not a fan, ei­ther.

“He’s a great busi­ness­man, but his com­ments are un­nec­es­sary. He in­sults ev­ery­body and I don’t like that,” said Abra­hams, who is black. “My Cau­casian friends are ex­cited that he’s com­ing. My African Amer­i­can friends are not.”

De­spite some op­po­si­tion, stu­dents agreed that any sig­nif­i­cant protest is un­likely. It’s not the Lib­erty way, they say, even for those who don’t ap­prove of the president.

Last fall, Dustin Wahl, a ju­nior from South Dakota, founded Lib­erty United Against Trump. He and ap­prox­i­mately 2,000 others in the Lib­erty com­mu­nity signed a state­ment that read, in part, “Not only is Don­ald Trump a bad can­di­date for president, he is ac­tively pro­mot­ing the very things that we as Chris­tians ought to op­pose.” But Wahl, who will at­tend com­mence­ment to see his girl­friend and other friends grad­u­ate, doesn’t an­tic­i­pate any fire­works.

“I don’t think a protest is par­tic­u­larly help­ful right now,” Wahl said. “The president’s there and I dis­agree with him on a whole host of things, but it can’t be a po­lit­i­cal day for me be­cause I’ve then let pol­i­tics con­quer other ar­eas of my life and I don’t think it’s a help­ful way to pro­mote con­ver­sa­tion at Lib­erty right now.”

Per­haps no Chris­tian leader in the United States has more closely aligned him­self with Trump than Fal­well. The Lib­erty president de­liv­ered a glow­ing trib­ute to Trump dur­ing a cam­paign visit in Jan­uary 2016. And his sup­port was crit­i­cal after the re­lease in Oc­to­ber of the “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” video in which Trump was over­heard brag­ging lewdly about grop­ing and try­ing to have sex with women. Fal­well went to bat for Trump, say­ing that his com­ments were rep­re­hen­si­ble but that “we’re all sin­ners, ev­ery one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t.”

Over the past decade, Fal­well has over­seen a bil­lion-dol­lar growth spurt at the school founded by his late fa­ther, the Rev. Jerry Fal­well, in 1970. Con­struc­tion cranes tower over the cam­pus and new aca­demic, ath­letic and res­i­den­tial build­ings have re­cently been com­pleted, with sev­eral more in the pipe­line. Most of the school’s 80,000 stu­dents are en­rolled on­line. About 15,000 take classes on cam­pus. The school has also built up a $1.4 bil­lion cash re­serve.

That Trump agreed to speak at com­mence­ment is a “great honor,” Fal­well said in an in­ter­view in his con­fer­ence room, which has sweep­ing views of the sur­round­ing moun­tains and the school’s ath­letic fa­cil­i­ties. Fal­well, who re­cently called Trump a “dream president” for evan­gel­i­cals, said that he hasn’t spo­ken with the president about his planned re­marks, but he knows what would go over well with the grad­u­at­ing class.

“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 said. “And then I’d like him to tell them what he needs them to do to help him make Amer­ica great again.”

JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Lib­erty Univer­sity President Jerry Fal­well Jr., right, and his son Trey un­wrap a por­trait of President Trump, a gift from a univer­sity donor, at his of­fice.

PHOTOS BY JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Natalie Con­nors, 19, left, and her sis­ter Kate, 22, re­view mor­tar­board photos while their friend Carolina Man­o­tas, 21, watches at Lib­erty Univer­sity in Lynch­burg, Va. The sis­ters voted for President Trump, who is sched­uled to de­liver the school’s com­mence­ment ad­dress on May 13.

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