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Donald Trump speaks at a convocation at Liberty University, as Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., left, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, right, in Lynchburg, Va., on Sept. 24, 2012. (Photo: The News & Advance, Parker Michels-Boyce/AP)
In the face of opposition from students, Liberty University officials are defending the school’s invitation to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak on campus Monday – Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
A peaceful protest is planned by demonstrators who will hold signs and sing when Trump speaks at one of Liberty University’s “convocations,” a thrice-weekly student gathering at the evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Va.
Law student Eli McGowan is an organizer of the protest. “I immediately felt that it was somewhat inappropriate, and then I started to hear from people who felt the same way,” McGowan said in an interview with Yahoo News. “Mr. Trump, by his actions and his words, he’s really revealed that he is antagonistic to the ideals that Dr. King lived for and ended up dying for.”
Mark Hine, the senior vice president for student affairs at Liberty University, said the school always holds a convocation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it usually includes a video to honor his memory.
“I think this one was picked to afford Mr. Trump the opportunity to, among other things, honor Dr. King. It wasn’t like we said, ‘Let’s go find someone who would be anti-Martin Luther King,’” Hine told Yahoo News. “I don’t know that absolutely everything Trump would say aligns with Martin Luther King, but I don’t see him in any way as being the total opposite.”
McGowan, who identifies as a libertarian, said Trump’s actions over the years appear to conflict with King’s message and legacy. He said Trump has been accused of discriminating in rental policies, calling for the death penalty for black teenagers convicted (and later exonerated) of rape, and demeaning undocumented immigrants. Trump has denied these charges, and, for his part, claims to have “a great relationship with the blacks.”
“Mr. Trump is someone who enjoys and profits from dividing people among racial, gender, national and ethnic lines, and mocking those he doesn’t have much in common with. Whereas Dr. King was a great unifier and sought to understand even his enemies,” McGowan said.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at a press conference in Chicago on March 24, 1967. (Photo: Charles Harrity/AP)
Hine said he sees people trying to silence others who disagree with them on American campuses or shaming schools into not inviting certain guests to the campus. But at Liberty, he said, convocation speakers cross the political spectrum.
“We want to give students exposure to all kinds of ideas from all different fronts,“ Hine said. "And we take it on the chin, by the way, for doing that from the left and the right.”
The protesters do not think Trump should be barred from speaking on campus altogether. They had no problem with his visit in 2012. They just wish for him to speak on a different occasion.
From Hine’s perspective, the list of allegations against Trump stretching back to the 1970s “seemed more like ‘gotcha politics’ than anything.”
Joel Ready, an alum of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, part of the university, said in a Facebook post that he supports having speakers with diverse opinions visit the school but was disappointed in the Trump invitation.
Citing scripture (1 Corinthians 5:9-13), Ready said that those who profess to be believers but are “immoral or greedy” should be expelled.
“Trump is the grotesque personification of everything that is wrong with American political discourse, and his repeated claims that he is a Christian should disqualify him from speaking at Liberty,” he wrote.
Trump identifies as Presbyterian and says that the Bible is his all-time favorite book (his second favorite book is his own business advice book, “The Art of the Deal.”) When asked, he has declined to name his favorite biblical passage but told the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that he benefits from profound wisdom in the Book of Proverbs.
A cross erected on Candlers Mountain overlooks Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)
Despite his braggadocio and flamboyant lifestyle, Trump has been polling strongly among white evangelicals — with 33 percent support in a recent NBC News/Survey Monkey survey.
Last week, in response to the uproar, Liberty University’s Student Government Association said that the student body should be able to hear from any person who is influential in his or her field of work.
“Regardless of whether we agree with their views and opinions it is our responsibility to show Christian hospitality and respect. Showing someone who we disagree with hospitality and respect doesn’t forsake our values as followers of Jesus, but helps our witness,” the group said in a post on Facebook.
The Student Government Association encouraged students to engage with other viewpoints that might cause them turn to the Bible “in search of truth.”
“Every guest we host for convocation affords us this opportunity,” the statement continues.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of late televangelist and university founder Jerry Falwell, says he thinks Trump upholds the principles of equality King enunciated in his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, making him an appropriate speaker for King’s birthday. Falwell told the Lynchburg News & Advance, “Liberty stands for that principle and I believe that Mr. Trump does as well.”
To court evangelical votes, other presidential candidates have already spoken at the Christian university this election cycle: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — all Christian Republicans — as well as, perhaps surprising to some, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent running as a Democrat, who is Jewish.
In a recent Fox News appearance, Falwell Jr. revealed that his favorite White House hopefuls are Trump, Carson and Cruz.
“I think Trump reminds me so much of my father. He says exactly what he thinks no matter what anybody cares,” Falwell told host Sean Hannity last month. “Carson is so intelligent and so levelheaded. And Cruz is just — I love Ted Cruz. So I’m still undecided, but those are definitely my three favorites.”
The convocation, considered the largest thrice-weekly gathering of Christian students in North America, hosts more than 80 guest speakers per year. It is held on campus at the Vines Center, where regular attendance is mandatory for residential undergraduate students and free to the general public.
CBN reports that Trump will get another opportunity to win over more young evangelicals on February 24, when he is scheduled to speak at Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va.