For his first commencement speech as president, Donald Trump went back to a place that was once key to his efforts as a candidate to shore up support among the Republican base.
Standing before tens of thousands of members of the Class of 2017 and their families at Liberty University’s open-air stadium in Lynchburg, Va., Trump thanked the crowd for helping him achieve the presidency.
“I wanna thank you because, boy, did you come out and vote — those of you that are old enough; in other words, your parents,” Trump said. “Boy, oh boy, you voted. You voted!”
A strong majority of evangelicals voted for Trump in November despite some predictions to the contrary. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., was one of the first leading white evangelical figures to endorse Trump during the Republican primary season, though that decision wasn’t universally supported at his university.
In his speech, Trump jokingly nodded to the difficult odds he’d once faced.
“Right here, the Class of 2017, dressed in cap and gown, graduating to a totally brilliant future; and here I am, standing before you as president of the United States. So 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,” Trump said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.
Trump bypassed more traditional options for a first presidential commencement speech, like the University of Notre Dame, instead sending Vice President Mike Pence. As graduation speeches go, Trump struck familiar themes: he urged students to be persistent, follow their passions and chart their own paths in life.
He occasionally sounded self-reflective as he imparted wisdom to the graduates.
“I’ve seen so many people, they’re forced through lots of reasons — sometimes including family — to go down a path that they don’t want to go down, to go down a path that leads then to something that they don’t love, that they don’t enjoy,” Trump said. “You have to do what you love, or you most likely won’t be very successful at it.”
Trump also seemed to allude several times to the 2016 campaign — advising students to claim the label of “outsider” and not be discouraged by naysayers.
“The more that a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead, you must keep pushing forward,” Trump said. “And always have the courage to be yourself.”
The president’s speech included plenty of language tailored to the conservative Christian audience. He alluded to his recent executive order billed as protecting religious freedom, though some critics said the language actually changes very little.
“America is better when people put their faith into action,” Trump 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.”
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SOURCE: Sarah McCammon