Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons license
Source: Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons license

It’s no surprise that Donald Trump chose Liberty University—the evangelical Christian college founded by the fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell—as the venue for his first graduation commencement speech as president. White evangelicals were Trump’s strongest religious demographic last November, with more than four out of five voting for him, so it was perhaps predictable that he would repay the faithful with a visit on graduation day.

But what was surprising—and more than a bit concerning for those who see conservative Christian political ideology as troublesome in the modern world—is the degree to which Trump’s speech threw red meat to his evangelical constituency. Some God-talk was to be expected, but Trump went much further—arguably further than any modern president has gone in defining American values in terms of Christian nationalism.

“America is a nation of true believers,” he declared, going on to remind the crowd of the religious language that has become common in American public life, such as “under God” in the pledge of allegiance and the national motto of “In God We Trust.” Conveniently omitting that most public God-references are relatively recent inventions (“under God” wasn’t added to the pledge until 1954, and “In God We Trust” became the national motto two years later), Trump also neglected to mention that about one in five Americans claim no god belief at all.[1] Instead, the speech was all about God and country, using language of unanimity: “We all salute the same great American flag,” he proclaimed, “and we are all made by the same almighty God.”

With college grads as Trump’s audience, one might have expected that he would at least pay lip service to critical thinking, empiricism, or intellectual inquiry, but there was none of that. Instead, faith and nationalism stayed in the forefront. Trump even portrayed his presidency as an instrument of God’s plan, stating that many thought his election “would require major help from God. . . And we got it.”

In speaking to his Christian audience, Trump was brazen in his you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours rhetoric, reminding evangelicals that their policy goals are his. “I am so proud as your president to have helped you along over the past short period of time,” he said, referring to last week’s controversial executive order instructing the IRS to do everything possible to allow churches and religious groups to participate in politics. Turning to his host Jerry Falwell, Jr. (son of the college’s founder), he bragged, “I said I was going to do it, and Jerry, I did it. And a lot of people are very happy with what's taken place. . . We did some very important signings.”

The founding Falwell, meanwhile, who died ten years ago, was given iconic status by Trump. “Reverend Falwell's life is a testament to the power of faith to change the world,” he gushed. An uninformed listener might have thought that the deceased Falwell was virtue personified, when in fact his politics were abhorrent to mainstream American values. He routinely hosted segregationists, opposed efforts to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa, was openly hostile to secular public education, was a leading opponent of gay rights, and blamed the September 11 attacks on feminists and liberals. It is telling that Falwell’s university reflects the intellectual and spiritual base of the Trump presidency.

Knowing this, we can see how a Liberty audience is ideal for Trump. Graduation speeches usually aren’t divisive, but this gig allowed Trump carte blanche for his usual confrontational, us-against-them semantics. Opponents and critics are a “small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone [and] want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think,” he explained. Conservative Christians, meanwhile, are his people: “[H]ave pride in your beliefs,” he advised graduates, and “remember what you’ve learned here at Liberty.” The message, not just to the grads but to the broader conservative Christian audience, was one of militancy: “[B]e a warrior for the truth. . . be a warrior for our country.”

Speaking of warriors, even Trump’s nod to the military—an obligatory gesture that would be not be unusual in any president’s speech—was laced with religiosity. Military personnel, who are strongly represented in the Liberty community, protect not just freedom, but as the now-pious Trump put it: “God’s precious gift of freedom.” The confluence of Christianity and militarism is perplexing to many, but not to the fundamentalist right.

And just to ensure that the speech would stay afar from any brainy, egghead liberal subject matter, Trump devoted a significant portion of it to the topic considered most crucial to American higher education: football. He commended the college for its growing and improving football program, drawing an analogy to how football helped Catholic Notre Dame become a school of national prominence.

“Your leaders knew from the very beginning that a strong athletic program would help this campus grow so that this school might transform more lives,” said Trump. International students and educators are baffled by the American obsession with school sports, seeing it as just another indicator of our anti-intellectualism, but the sad reality is that Trump is probably correct—Liberty’s growing football program will most likely result in much higher visibility, more money, and increased credibility for the university.

All of this leaves humanists and anyone else embracing progressive and secular values rather shell shocked. Most would have no objection to ordinary citizens or religious leaders expressing faith and promoting sectarian theology, even in a commencement speech, but there’s something a bit eerie about the nation’s leader hunkering down with one circle of exclusive believers to validate their theology and politics. The problem is not that Liberty graduates were urged to be “champions for Christ”—the problem is that the person doing the urging was the president of the United States.

Follow David Niose on Twitter: @ahadave

[1] The American Religious Identity Survey, published by Trinity College, shows (see Table 4) that 69.5 percent of Americans believe in a personal God, while 12.1 believe in a "higher power," for a total of 71.6 who believe in some kind of God. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons license

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