Falwell, who makes a prime-time speech at the convention Thursday, got on board with Trump in January, providing him with an early and critical endorsement ahead of the Iowa caucuses. The move was a shocker even for close Falwell associates, who wondered how he could square his faith with Trump’s flamboyant personal lifestyle and past support for abortion rights and liberal Democrats.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Falwell said terrorism and other pressing concerns have shoved social issues to the back burner for this presidential cycle — even for the most conservative Christians.
“If you look at the polls of evangelicals, in years past, in past elections, the issues that they thought were most important were the social issues,” he said. “Now with all the turmoil in the world, when you look at the list of what evangelicals think is important, there’s no difference between them and other conservatives and even blue-collar Democrats. The social issues come at the bottom of the list after saving our country. After securing our borders. After stopping terrorism. After … getting the debt under control and saving our economy.
“And so, evangelicals and Christians, they’re voting as Americans this time. And maybe in the future when things aren’t so chaotic, maybe they will vote more on the social issues again. But it’s a different day. We’ve got to save the country first, and we’ll fight about all those other things later.”
At the same time, Falwell said Trump has evolved on social issues.
“He was a New York businessman,” Falwell said. “So New York businessmen don’t sit around discussing whether abortion should be legal or not. They don’t sit around and discuss social issues. They have fiduciary responsibilities to their stockholders. So they have to give to the politician that helps their business pursuits.
“So this was a new world to him. But I’ve watched him evolve from a New York City businessman to a politician, and he’s been forced to take a position on all the issues. And I’ve been very pleased that he’s taken the right positions on all the issues.”
Trump’s self-aggrandizing, sometimes bullying style also has been off-putting to some religious conservatives. But Falwell said it’s not out of place in politics.
“I was in the rough and tumble of helping rebuild Liberty University financially, and that part of it really doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I think if you’re gonna be a successful politician, you’ve got to be forceful. It’s a blood sport, I mean, let’s face it. It’s not what I do, thank goodness. But it is a blood sport, and if you’re not willing to be tough and fight, you’re not gonna win.”
Trump leads Clinton by a 76 to 15 percent margin among white evangelical Protestants in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday. Trump's lead with evangelicals is at least as large as Mitt Romney's lopsided 78 to 21 percent margin over Barack Obama among white evangelical Christians in 2012, according to exit polling. This year marks the second straight presidential election where white evangelicals are rallying around a Republican candidate whose religious views — that year Romney's Mormon faith — draw skepticism from many evangelicals.
Falwell also admires Trump’s skills as a businessman — something the university president appreciates after struggling to transform Liberty from a small, financially shaky college to an educational powerhouse with $1 billion in net assets, 14,000 students on campus and an additional 66,000 enrolled online.
“We had a lot of tough years,” Falwell said. “We struggled to survive. My father and I spent a lot of weekends calling donors and lenders, trying to find money to cover paychecks that had gone out the Friday before. … When Mr. Trump came along, he had turned companies around. That’s what attracted me to him.”
There’s one more thing Falwell sees in Trump — a little bit of Jerry Sr., strange as that might sound.
“I really was impressed, as I got to know him, by how much he loved people,” Falwell said. “He reminded me a lot of my father. He never met a stranger. He’d go out of his way to talk to anybody. I call him America’s blue-collar billionaire, because he really doesn’t act like a billionaire. He’s not a pawn of the elites on Wall Street or in Washington.”
Jerry Sr. took some flak in 1980 for bypassing Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, for Ronald Reagan, a divorced movie star. He took more in 1988 for backing George H.W. Bush over televangelist Pat Robertson.
“My father really, truly believed what Jesus said when he said, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,’” Falwell said. “That means be a good citizen. But then he taught to treat others as we want to be treated. So what he was saying was, turn the cheek in personal relationships with other people, but when you’re serving as a citizen either in the military or in politics, then you have to do what’s in the best interests of the country. I don’t think Jesus meant for soldiers serving the Roman army to turn the other cheek if they were Christians. It’s two different tracks.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.