President Trump on Saturday told graduates of Liberty University to “never give up” and urged them to challenge the status quo, as he has in Washington.
“Washington is run by a small group with failed values who think they know everything. We don’t need a lecture from Washington on how to lead our lives,” Trump said in his commencement speech at Christian school Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va. “We don’t worship Washington. We worship God.”
Trump has spoken at Liberty University before. He courted Christians there in January 2016 with a speech in which he promised: “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president, helped Trump win an overwhelming 80 percent of the white evangelical vote.
Trump’s remarks Saturday in Virginia marked his first extended public appearance since he fired James Comey as FBI director this week.
The president largely has stayed out of public view since Tuesday, when he removed the head of the agency investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, along with possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
A recent Pew Research Center survey marking Trump’s first 100 days in office, a milestone reached on April 29, found three-quarters of white evangelicals approved of his performance as president while just 39 percent of the general public held the same view.
Christian conservatives have been overjoyed by Trump’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with Trump’s choice of socially conservative Cabinet members and other officials, such as Charmaine Yoest, a prominent anti-abortion activist named to the Department of Health and Human Services.
But they had a mixed response to an executive order on religious liberty that Trump signed last week. He directed the IRS to ease up on enforcing an already rarely enforced limit on partisan political activity by churches.
He also promised “regulatory relief” for those who object on religious grounds to the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act health law. Yet the order did not address one of the most pressing demands from religious conservatives: broad exemptions from recognizing same-sex marriage.
Still, Falwell, who endorsed Trump in January 2016 just before that year’s Iowa caucuses, praised Trump’s actions on issues that concern Christian conservatives.
“I really don’t think any other president has done more for evangelicals and the faith community in four months than President Trump has,” Falwell told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Falwell became a key surrogate and validator for the thrice-married Trump during the campaign, frequently traveling with Trump on the candidate’s plane and appearing at events. Falwell often compared Trump to his later father, the conservative televangelist Jerry Falwell, and argued that while Trump wasn’t the most religious candidate in the race, he was the man the country needed.
Newly elected U.S. presidents often give their first commencement addresses at the University of Notre Dame, the country’s best-known Roman Catholic school.
Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did so during their first year in office. But this year, Vice President Mike Pence will speak at Notre Dame’s graduation, becoming the first vice president to do so.
Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne declined to say whether Trump had been invited to the May 21 ceremony, saying it was against school policy to reveal who had turned down offers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.