When Donald Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, took the stage Wednesday morning at Liberty University the crowd of 8,500 people – mostly students – erupted in applause.
The Indiana governor is one of them – an evangelical Christian, and a committed conservative. But Mr. Trump? Not so much.
“As Christians we are called to forgive, even as we’ve been forgiven,” Governor Pence said, asking the assembled to forgive Trump's crude remarks about women.
The crowd sat silent.
While most students interviewed at the event were still prepared to vote for Trump – citing reasons ranging from his stated opposition to abortion to his presumed support of conservative nominees for the Supreme Court – by Wednesday night the turmoil within the larger world of evangelical Christianity was reverberating here in Lynchburg, Va.
A group calling itself Liberty United Against Trump issued a manifesto protesting Trump’s candidacy and his strong support by the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr.
“We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” the statement said. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”
The division on campus over whether to support Trump reflects a broader national dilemma for conservative Christians.
The leader of the student revolt, Dustin Wahl, told The Washington Post that about 1,300 students, faculty, and alumni have signed on to the statement. Liberty University, the statement said, has been “inexorably associated” with Trump.
“Associating any politician with Christianity is damaging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the statement said. “But Donald Trump is not just any politician. He has made his name by maligning others and bragging about his sins.”
A hub for conservative Christian millennials
Liberty University, the once-tiny Baptist college founded in 1971 by Falwell’s father, televangelist Jerry Falwell, has become one of the largest universities in the country, with tens of thousands of students, both on campus and online.
Today, it's an epicenter of conservative Christian Millennials. Ted Cruz made his campaign debut here, and Trump delivered a convocation address.
Falwell has defended Trump by saying that “we are all sinners” and that everyone can be forgiven. He continued to defend Trump on television Wednesday night and Thursday after several news outlets featured women describing unwanted groping by Trump. Falwell said he had spoken with the Republican presidential nominee and been assured that the stories were untrue.
At Pence’s appearance at Liberty on Wednesday, there were no anti-Trump protests, either inside the arena or outside. A smattering of students wore T-shirts supporting Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson; none were seen supporting Mrs. Clinton.
In his remarks, Pence echoed the sentiments of Falwell as he defended Trump.
“Last Sunday night, my running mate showed humility,” he said, referring to Trump’s handling of the 2005 lewd video controversy at his second debate with Clinton, and asking students to forgive him. “He showed what was in his heart to the American people.”
Brooke Aaron, a freshman at Liberty from Danville, Va., applauded Trump for apologizing for his statements on the video. “It takes a lot to go in front of the whole United States and say sorry for something,” she said.
When asked whether she thinks Trump is a Christian, she said, “I feel like he has Christian values, even though some of his actions don’t follow up with that.”
After Pence’s speech, a group of Liberty students in Johnson-Weld T-shirts set up a table with campaign literature at a nearby building, engaging students as they walked by.
“Why should I vote for Gary Johnson, who can’t win?” a young woman asked.
“Because he’s not a socialist” and hasn't been sexually aggressive toward women, said one of the Johnson supporters.
Trump 'unfit for power'
While their politics may be more aligned with Trump than Clinton, many Evangelicals have come out publicly against the Republican nominee since the lewd video aired last Friday, saying their Christian values forbade supporting such a man.
Editorials posted this week by two prominent evangelical Christian publications have caught particular notice, as they have slammed Trump – and by extension, his conservative Christian supporters – over the nominee’s crude statements.
“Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord,” Christianity Today's executive editor Andy Crouch wrote Monday. “They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us.”
On Tuesday, the more conservative Christian magazine World called on Trump to step down from the GOP ticket, calling him “unfit for power.”
Polls show Trump winning a large majority of white evangelical voters who are politically conservative, even though many supported other candidates in the GOP primaries. Politically liberal Evangelicals, many of them minorities, support Clinton.
In the voting precinct that includes Liberty University, nestled in the foothills of central Virginia, Trump won only 8 percent of the vote in the GOP primary. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won 44 percent, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz got 33 percent.
Like most voters, Evangelicals generally go for one of the two major parties – at times voting defensively against the “lesser of two evils.”
Speaking at Liberty University on Tuesday, Christian conservative leader Ralph Reed said that it may be tempting to sit this election out.
But “retreating to the stained-glass ghetto from whence we came, refusing to muddy our boots with the mire and muck of politics is not an option for followers of Christ,” Mr. Reed said in making his pitch for Trump.
“Trump is a jerk, and he’s selfish,” said Austin Wagoner, a senior at another university touring Liberty’s law school. “But at least he’s not Hillary.”
Mr. Wagoner’s mother, Sandra Wagoner of Faith, N.C., was slightly more charitable toward the GOP nominee.
“With Trump, at least, you know what you’re getting,” she said. “He puts it all out there.”
Indeed, much of the support for Trump boils down to opposition to Clinton.
“We can unite against Hillary Clinton,” says Zach Whitson, a senior at Liberty from Gloucester, Va., attending the Pence event.