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Trump Tests Evangelical Message at Liberty University

Donald Trump tested his evangelical chops Monday at Liberty University.
Image: Donald Trump
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)Steve Helber / AP

LYNCHBURG, Va. — In front of a packed house of supporters and students required to be there, Donald Trump tested his evangelical chops Monday at Liberty University, which claims to be the largest Christian university in the world.

“It’s an honor to be here again,” Trump said at the school’s convocation, which took place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The real-estate mogul claimed he drew a record crowd to the event, an assertion that could not be confirmed. “It’s an honor in terms of Martin Luther King, to have broken the record (for attendance).” For that reason, Trump dedicated the accomplishment “to the late great” civil rights leader.

Trump often touts his success among evangelicals, a key voting bloc in Iowa and one that his friend-turned-foe Ted Cruz is relying heavily upon in the Hawkeye State. Among them, the Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who has praised Trump in prior interviews and continued to do so Monday, introducing him as a man of kindness and political incorrectness, much like Falwell’s father. Trump called this comparison “the best compliment of all.”

Trump sought to show his religious knowledge and his support of the Christian faith. He told the crowd that a Trump administration would seek to “protect Christianity” and bring back “Merry Christmas.” But he bungled an attempt at a deeper show of knowledge, saying that he asked Falwell and “some of the folks here because I hear this is a major theme right here. But two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3:17. That’s the whole ballgame.” The conventional way of citing scripture would be “second Corinthians.”

Trump even used the word “damn” when describing Apple needing to build their “damn computers and things” in America – a line he’s used at many rallies before, but never at an evangelical place of education.

But that’s not to say he didn’t try to be on better-than-usual behavior. Trump asked permission to “say bad in this room” before he launched into attacks on his rivals. While a usual Trump speech is studded with attacks and punches at rivals from both parties, Monday’s event included Trump calling out Cruz for copying his immigration and border security plans, but not naming him. Trump didn’t last not naming names for long, though. Minutes later he couldn’t resist calling Jeb Bush “a stiff.”

Casey Upton was at Liberty University’s Convocation on Monday morning because she had to be. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t interested in what this particular speaker had to say.

“I’m OK with listening to him,” Casey Upton, a student at Liberty, told NBC News. “I support him wanting to run, but I’m not sure if I support him.” On if he embodies Liberty University’s Christian values, she said she thought he did “to a point.” Behind her, Megan Cooper, another Liberty student, shook her head and smiled almost immediately.

“I feel like Liberty, their values are more about compassion,” she explained, “and I feel like Donald Trump doesn’t have much compassion when it comes to other cultures that don’t really fit in with the American way. I feel like that’s not something that Liberty upholds.”

And while other students shared that skepticism, Falwell didn’t seem to. Opening his speech to remind attendees that he wasn’t endorsing Trump Monday, he regaled the crowd with tales of Trump’s past kindness, including one that involved Trump paying the mortgage of a couple who once helped him when his limo broke down.

Trump left the stage to cheers, worked the rope-line. He then boarded his jet bound for New Hampshire – a sign of ramped-up campaigning as early caucus and primary days draw near.