Trump Nabs Endorsement Of A Top Evangelical Leader
This post was updated at 10 p.m. ET
When Donald Trump spoke at Liberty University last week, the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., heaped praised upon him.
Falwell claimed his glowing remarks were not an endorsement.
That has changed.
On Tuesday morning, Falwell — the leader of one of the largest evangelical universities in the world and son of famed televangelist Jerry Falwell, founder of the "Moral Majority" — officially backed the controversial billionaire real-estate mogul for president.
"I am proud to offer my endorsement of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States," Falwell said in a statement released by the Trump campaign. "He is a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again."
That has a hint of Trump's "Make America Great Again" trademarked tagline.
"It is truly an honor to receive Jerry's endorsement," Trump said in his own statement. "Not only is he a high-quality person, with a wonderful family, whom I have great respect for — I also consider him a very good friend and his support means so much to me."
Falwell's introduction at Liberty's opening semester convocation last week raised eyebrows for how laudatory it was, far more so than for other candidates who have spoken at the school. That includes Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who launched his campaign at Liberty.
During those remarks, Falwell praised Trump as "one of the greatest visionaries of our time" and said that "in my opinion, Mr. Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the New Testament."
Falwell said the former casino owner — who has been divorced twice, admitted to multiple affairs and repeated the day before he spoke at Liberty that he had never asked God for forgiveness — reminded him of his late father.
But even with that controversial past, Falwell argued that shouldn't disqualify Trump from the White House or getting the support of evangelicals. Falwell reminded students that, in 1980, his father voted for Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor who'd also been divorced, over Democrat Jimmy Carter, who spoke openly about his religion and was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher.
"We are all sinners," Falwell said, pointing out that he didn't think Carter ran the country very well.
The endorsement is a particular rebuke to Cruz, who less than a week before the Iowa caucuses needs the support of Christian conservatives to win in Iowa. Unlike Trump, Cruz has often sounded far more comfortable using the language of evangelicals and talking about his own faith journey.
At Liberty last week, for example, Trump mispronounced a book of the Bible as "Two Corinthians" and used words that would otherwise be considered swears at Liberty ("hell" and "damn") several times.
Cruz has gotten his own support from evangelical leaders, especially in Iowa, where he nabbed the endorsement of Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats, who has backed the last two Iowa winners.
And on Tuesday night, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins announced on Fox News he was backing Cruz.
"Ted is a constitutional conservative who will fight for faith, family and freedom," Perkins said in a statement. "He will defend our right to believe and live according to those beliefs. Our families will be protected and freedom will once again mean something in America. I trust Ted to fight to pull America out of the political and cultural tailspin that President Obama's policies have put us in. This is no normal election; this election is about the very survival of our Constitution and our republic."
Still, in the final days before the caucuses, support among the crucial voting bloc in the Hawkeye State could be turning back Trump's way. An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released Tuesday morning showed a shift away from Cruz — Trump now leads the GOP field among white evangelical voters by 37 to 20 percent over Cruz.
Not all national evangelical leaders have been quick to embrace Trump, though. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Commission — and a frequent critic of the GOP front-runner — tweeted this after Falwell's endorsement as a reminder.