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