There were a few stumbles during Donald Trump’s sojourn to Liberty University on Monday.
He mispronounced a book of the Bible. He cursed — twice. And on Martin Luther King Day, the GOP presidential candidate said he was honoring the slain civil-rights leader by dedicating to him the record crowds he says he drew for the school’s opening convocation. (Students are required to attend.)
“We’re going to protect Christianity. I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct,” he thundered at the beginning of his speech at the conservative evangelical university.
Then he moved on to cite “Two Corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame. … Is that the one you like?” Trump asked. “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
That’s a verse that’s etched on campus buildings, but that verse comes from “Second Corinthians” — not “Two.”
Students in the room snickered and laughed, and advisers to two of Trump’s top rivals, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, were quick to point out the gaffe on Twitter.
Trump was once leading with conservative evangelical voters in the polls, but that support has slipped, especially in Iowa, which votes in two weeks. And it’s Cruz who’s challenging him the most heavily for religious conservatives.
Trump has boasted of his religious credentials, but there have been some missteps along the way. Last year, he told an Iowa evangelical gathering he had never asked God for forgiveness — a central tenet of the Christian faith — and he repeated that Sunday on CNN. He’s declined to cite his favorite Bible verse or even his favorite testament. And the Presbyterian church he says he attends in Manhattan has said he’s not an active member.
Those discrepancies haven’t mattered yet to many evangelicals, and also didn’t seem to faze many Liberty students either.
Sophomore Kathy Abdallah said she liked what Trump had to say, but as to whether his faith was genuine, she said she was taking his word for it.
“The Bible says we don’t know the heart,” Abdallah said. “He says he is [a Christian] at the very least.”
There were still other head-scratching moments from Trump. He was speaking on Martin Luther King Day, a choice which had already angered some students and alumni due to inflammatory and controversial remarks Trump has made about Muslims, Mexican immigrants, women and other minorities during the course of his campaign — something they say isn’t in line with the spirit of Dr. King.
The school defended the pick, telling Yahoo News, “I think this one was picked to afford Mr. Trump the opportunity to, among other things, honor Dr. King. It wasn’t like we said, ‘Let’s go find someone who would be anti-Martin Luther King.'”
But Trump did not use his speech to pay homage to King and only acknowledged him in the context of boasting about the record crowd size he drew.
“And the first thing I said to Jerry and Becki [Falwell] when I got here: ‘Did we break the record?'” he told students. “They said, ‘Yes, you did, by quite a bit.’ So we’ll dedicate that to Martin Luther King, a great man. And that’s a little bit of an achievement, I will tell you.”
He echoed that milestone and dedication again at the end of his speech: “It’s an honor, in terms of Martin Luther King, to have broken the record. We’re dedicating the record to the late, great Martin Luther King, OK? But it’s an honor.”
A spokeswoman for Liberty would only say attendance was more than 11,000, but did not confirm whether it was a record for a convocation. Students living on campus are required to attend the thrice-weekly gatherings and can only miss a few each semester.
Despite his audience, Trump didn’t deviate much from his usual stump speech. He boasted of his plan to build a wall along the Southern border and make Mexico pay for it, crediting himself with raising illegal immigration as an important issue in the GOP primary.
His loudest applause line came when he promised to defend the Second Amendment, and he pledged to stop the so-called “War on Christmas” by having stores say, “Merry Christmas” again instead of “Happy Holidays.”
He didn’t clean up or edit some usual lines in his speech — despite speaking at what felt like a church service. A praise and worship band even sang contemporary hymns before Trump spoke.
“We’re mismanaged. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing,” he said of the country’s current political leadership. Later he promised if he were president, he would make sure Microsoft made their “damn computers” in the U.S. and not China.
Students began commenting on social media about Trump’s language, and as CNN noted, cursing is against the student code of conduct, and can be punished with “reprimands and fines.”
Overall, students were politely receptive to Trump’s speech, but it was far from the raucous reception he usually gets at his own campaign rallies, typically featuring sustained applause lines and standing ovations.
One person, who lavished praise on Trump — and gave him considerable cover — was Jerry Falwell, Jr. The university president typically introduces political speakers invited to the school’s convocation — Cruz kicked off his presidential campaign there back in March; Ben Carson spoke there; and even Democrat Bernie Sanders accepted their invitation to talk to student body last September.
But this introduction was far more laudatory than any from Falwell in the past, including Cruz. He said the business mogul reminded him of his late father, the famed televangelist Jerry Falwell, who founded the school. And while he noted neither he nor the school was endorsing anyone for president, the long exhortation of praise sounded like just that.
Falwell referred to Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.”
He added, “In my opinion, Mr. Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” He then rattled off ways Trump had helped people who were struggling financially and in need.
As for Christians who might have misgivings about voting for a twice-divorced former casino mogul, Falwell reminded students that his father had no problem voting for Ronald Reagan, a divorced Hollywood actor, over Democrat Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, in 1980.
“We are all sinners,” Falwell said.
Not all students were as taken with Trump, though. Freshman Gabriel O’Dea called Trump’s speech “all flash, no substance” and said he was a “little upset” over how much Falwell praised the GOP presidential hopeful.
“[Trump] offered up a lot of great ideas but no way to get from Point A to Point B,” said O’Dea, who said he was leaning toward voting for Rubio. “He didn’t offer any solutions.”