In a somewhat surprise move, the university’s current president, Jerry Falwell Jr., became one of Trump’s earliest supporters during the 2016 campaign. Falwell had previously kept a somewhat low political profile, and his endorsement was a sign that Trump might eventually be able to win over conservative Christians.
The students, however, were more ambivalent. Last fall, in the weeks before the election, a small group of students wrote a petition urging their fellow Christians to oppose to Trump. When I visited campus, most students were resigned to voting for Trump, but many seemed fatigued with politics—everyone on campus is required to attend regular talks by famous speakers, many of whom hail from Washington.
On Saturday, the students seemed to have changed their minds—they were all in for Trump. When Falwell mentioned Neil Gorsuch, the recently confirmed Supreme Court justice, in his introduction, the crowd cheered wildly. The university president crowed his approval of Trump’s first months in office: “I do not believe any president in our lifetimes has done so much that has benefited the Christian community in such a short time span as Donald Trump,” he said. The crowd applauded in agreement.
Trump won big cheers for promising to protect their religious liberty—“as long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what is in your heart,” he declared—and laughs for joking about Auburn’s intimidating football team. He called on the students to be champions for Christ, and encouraged them to maintain faith in God: As long as they have that, he said, “you will not fail.” He even made a humble crack at himself: “Here I am, standing before you as president of the United States,” he said. “I am guessing that some people here today thought that ... would really require major help from God.”
Trump’s bold religious rhetoric was matched only by his derision for life in the capital. “In my short time in Washington, I have seen firsthand how the system is broken,” he said. “A small group of failed voices, who think they know everything, and … want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think. You are not going to let other people tell you what you believe , especially when you know that you are right.” He called on the students to “challenge accepted wisdom and take on established systems”—after all, he pointed out, “I think I did.”
It was like he was back on the campaign trail, once again an outsider railing against the insiders, rather than an elected official who has already won and is now tasked with governing. Trump was relaxed, sitting back with his arms crossed during the pledge of allegiance and opening pomp and circumstance. He hung around after his speech to listen to the praise choir and shake all the singers’ hands. He and Falwell posed for a picture before the group of graduates, both cheekily flashing Trump’s signature double thumbs up.