President Trump spoke at his first commencement speech this morning, May 13, 2017, at the Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Liberty’s President, Jerry Falwell, Jr., minced no words when endorsing Trump during his campaign, drawing criticism from Christians and non-Christians alike. However, now Falwell has a very influential friend in Trump, who recognized his surprising victory as only being attributable to “major help from God” and the votes of evangelicals.
About the middle of his speech, grinning from ear to ear, Trump told the crowd, “I want to thank you because boy did you come out and vote… Boy oh boy—you voted!”
The speech started off on a humorous note talking about the changes Liberty University has gone through since Trump visited a year ago. Two differences he highlighted were the class of 2017 graduating and the fact that he is now the president. “I’m guessing there are some people here today who thought that either one of those things—either one—would really require major help from God…and we got it.”
Repeatedly mentioning Falwell’s name in the speech, referring to their friendship and effectively patting him on the back for building such an impressive university after his father’s tradition with a rising football team to boot, Trump sounded exceptionally at ease and confident. Considering Liberty is the largest Christian University in the country, with an evangelical emphasis, Trump knew he was standing in front of a crowd, the overwhelming majority of which had recently voted for him.
Typical of his combative speech style, albeit visibly more at ease, Trump took several opportunities to highlight his victories over critics while also encouraging the graduates to be champions for Christ. He encouraged graduates not to go along with traditionally accepted wisdom or values, but to push the envelope, so to speak. At the end of our time, will we be able to say that we challenged “accepted wisdom and [took] on established systems?” Trump paused, allowing the audience to chuckle with him as he said, “I think I did.”
Trump warned the graduates of a “small group of voices” that think they “know everything” and want to tell people how to live and what to think who are going to try to convince them to abandon their convictions. “You aren’t going to let other people tell you what you believe—especially when you know you’re right.”
The president took a moment to commend the graduates for giving “half a million hours of charity” last year. “In your hearts are ascribed the values of service, sacrifice and devotion. Now you must go forth into the world and turn your hopes and dreams into action.”
Turning his attention to the graduates’ faith and their conviction to serve the church, Trump said, “Whether you are called to be a missionary overseas, to shepherd a church, or to be a leader in your community, you are living witness of the Gospel message—of faith, hope and love.”
Trump made reference to his National Day of Prayer signing of an executive order to protect religious liberties, then said “As long as I am president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart.”
Wrapping up his speech, Trump challenged graduates with the task of protecting “the freedom that patriots…earned with their incredible sacrifice.”