Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. endorses Trump

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Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the late televangelist, backed Donald Trump on Tuesday, giving the Republican frontrunner the blessing of one of the biggest names in the evangelical community days before the US caucuses. Iowa.

In a statement, Falwell called Trump “a successful leader and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

Falwell’s decision is long overdue since he raved about the billionaire in recent weeks and developed a relationship with him. But the timing of the official announcement is significant, as Trump and Ted Cruz battle it out in Iowa for support from social conservatives.

“It is truly an honor to receive Jerry’s endorsement. Not only is he a great person, with a wonderful family, who I have great respect for — I also consider him a very good friend and his support means a lot to me,” Trump said in a statement.

Coming a week after evangelical frontrunner Sarah Palin endorsed Trump, Falwell represents Trump’s latest attempt to whittle away Cruz’s deep support among born-again Christians nationwide and show his own popularity with prominent people. of faith.

Falwell, in particular, has a connection to Cruz: When the US senator from Texas launched his presidential campaign last year, he did so at Liberty University.

Video: Ted Cruz, launching his presidential bid at Liberty University

Trump’s appeals to religious voters, however, went beyond glowing endorsements. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he now begins rallies with a prayer. In Sioux City and Pella, the prayer was offered by Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress. And on Sunday, Trump attended a Presbyterian service where he met worshipers and posed for photos.

Falwell’s endorsement has come together over the course of several months, with the headteacher and Trump exchanging private phone calls, according to Republicans familiar with the relationship. Late last year, Falwell was publicly encouraging Trump, even though he withheld an endorsement. “Trump reminds me so much of my dad,” he said in a December interview with Fox News.

When Trump appeared Jan. 18 at Liberty, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., Falwell’s introduction was effusive.

Trump received a warm welcome from Falwell – but not everyone was convinced

“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of love and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” Falwell said.

“He can’t be bought, he’s not a puppet on a string like a lot of other candidates… who have wealthy donors as puppeteers,” he added.

Falwell then spoke of his father’s support of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, a controversial affiliation in some evangelical circles because Reagan’s 1980 election opponent, then President Jimmy Carter, was a devout Southern Baptist.

“When he entered the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher, a pastor, or even a president who shared his theological beliefs; he was electing the President of the United States with the talents, ability, and experience to lead a nation,” Falwell said of his father. “After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look what happened to our nation with him as president. Sorry.”

When Trump took the stage, he shook hands with Falwell and kissed him. “Being compared to his dad, just kinda, being compared to his dad is really an honor for me, so I want to thank Jerry for saying that,” Trump told the crowd.

The Trump campaign has since cut the audio of Falwell’s remarks into a 60-second radio ad.

Liberty, a massive and influential Christian university with 14,000 students on campus and 66,000 enrolled online, has net assets worth more than $1 billion and is known for its conservative culture. Students live by a strict code of conduct: no alcohol, no sex outside of marriage, no shorts in class. Three times a week, all students are required to attend “convocation”, a loud and highly produced religious gathering that features guest speakers.

Why Liberty University has become a place of pilgrimage for GOP candidates

Although the university is prohibited from taking positions on political issues as a condition of its tax-exempt status, Liberty is often at the epicenter of Republican politics. The elder Falwell, who died in 2007, was an outspoken man who led a “moral majority” political movement.

Falwell’s endorsement is explicitly personal, the Trump campaign said.

What Donald Trump does during the election campaign

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S., July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Barry F. Howard