Donald Trump pitched himself Monday to Christian students at Liberty University as a politically incorrect protector of Christianity, tailoring his classic stump speech to the evangelical audience with mixed success.
“Christianity, it’s under siege,” Trump proclaimed early in his speech to the crowd of about 10,000 – overwhelmingly Liberty University students who are required to attend the university’s tri-weekly convocations.
But Trump, who has eagerly targeted evangelicals – a key voting bloc in the first caucus state of Iowa – in his quest for the presidency, tripped over himself Monday as he attempted to quote from the Bible to connect with the crowd of students at one of the most prominent Christian universities in the country, and the largest in the world.
“Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” Trump said, drawing laughter from the crowd of students at Liberty University who knew Trump was attempting to refer to “Second Corinthians.”
Trump was still able to draw applause from the crowd by reading the Bible verse, however: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” the university’s “School Verse” which is prominently displayed on campus.
And several students who attended the rally didn’t fault Trump for the scriptural slip, instead giving him kudos for attempting to connect with his religious audience.
“I think the fact that he’s putting forth an effort to relate to us is something decent,” said Nacci Palloto, a sophomore at the university.
Taking pains to avoid judging the Republican presidential front-runner, Palloto said Trump seemed “on the lower side” of being authentic as he talked about his Christianity and said it seemed like Trump was “like ‘I’m just gonna say this to appeal to you’ type of thing.”
Taylor Timmerman and Victoria Clay, both seniors, said they thought Trump’s focus on Christianity during his speech did seem authentic, with Clay pointing Trump’s friendship with Jerry Falwell, Jr, the university’s president who spoke glowingly about Trump in introducing the Republican candidate.
Falwell, the son of controversial Christian evangelist and Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell Sr., noted that the university does not endorse candidates for office and has invited both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to speak at the university.
But Falwell lauded Trump in a lengthy introduction that he offered to neither Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential contender who recently spoke at the university, nor Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who announced his presidential bid here last spring.
Falwell glowingly compared Trump to his father due to their shared propensity for eschewing political correctness.
“Donald Trump is a breath of fresh air,” Falwell said, before saying he believed “the American public is finally ready to elect a candidate who is not a career politician but rather who has succeeded in real life.”
Trump, in a departure from recent days, didn’t take any direct jabs at Cruz, the GOP presidential contender who enjoys the backing of some of the evangelical movement’s most prominent leaders.
With the Falwell bump, Trump still managed to win over much of his audience with pledges to “protect Christianity,” lines that earned him some of his strongest applause of his 50-minute speech.
“We’re going to protect Christianity. I don’t have to be politically correct,” Trump said.
The Corinthians flub wasn’t Trump’s only hiccup.
Trump’s use of the word “hell” prompted some students to point to the university’s student code of conduct, “The Liberty Way,” which notes that any “obscene, profane or abusive language is punished with Reprimands and fines.”
Trump used the word in reference to the U.S. conflicts in the Middle East (wanting to “knock the hell out of” ISIS, or “we don’t know what the hell we’re doing”), sparking local reactions on Yik Yak, the anonymous commenting website.
“Mr. Trump, I’m afraid you need to put a quarter in the swear jar,” one commenter in the region posted.
Trump’s invitation to speak on campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Day prompted backlash from some corners of the largely conservative student body.
But while Falwell said Trump’s speech would be an opportunity for the bombastic front-runner “to recognize and honor Dr. King,” Trump made only sparing reference to the civil rights icon.
Touting what he said was a “record” crowd size at Liberty University’s central arena – which is regularly packed for convocations due to the university’s mandatory attendance policy – Trump said in opening his remarks he would like to “dedicate that to Martin Luther King, a great man.”
And again in closing, Trump pointed to King – and the size of his crowds.
“It’s an honor in terms of Martin Luther King,” Trump said. “We’re dedicating the record to the late, great Martin Luther King.”
Trump made no other mention of the civil rights leader.
CNN’s Greg Krieg contributed to this report.