GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He is unexpectedly popular among evangelical. (Drew Angerer/Bloomberg)

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. stood before more than 10,000 of his students and some visitors Monday morning and laid out the case for why conservative evangelicals like them should support a presidential candidate like Donald Trump — the cursing, self-promoting, thrice-married billionaire who bungles Bible references.

It’s not that Trump is the most religious or pious of the candidates, Falwell said, although he described Trump as a “servant leader” who “lives a life of helping others, as Jesus taught.” It’s that Trump is a savvy businessman who “speaks the truth publicly, even if it is uncomfortable for people to hear,” and who is not a puppet of major donors.

Falwell, who said his comments were not an endorsement, compared Trump to Ronald Reagan, the actor turned politician whom his father once supported over Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher.

“When he walked into the voting booth, he wasn’t electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs; he was electing the president of the United States with the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation,” Falwell said of his father, the late televangelist Jerry Falwell. “After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look at what happened to our nation with him in the presidency.”

Trump, a mainline Presbyterian, is unexpectedly popular with many evangelical voters, who often play an outsize role in some early-voting states. These are the same sorts of voters who are attracted to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a Southern Baptist and son of a pastor who frequently discusses his faith on the campaign trail. As the race for the Republican presidential nomination narrows, the competition between Trump and Cruz is best illustrated by their fight for the votes of evangelicals.

In national polls, Trump is either leading among evangelicals or roughly even with Cruz. But in Iowa — home to the Feb. 1 caucuses — Cruz has a substantial lead.

Some of Trump’s outreach efforts to evangelicals have seemed forced — such as when he proclaimed the Bible the greatest book ever written, even greater than his own books, but could not name his favorite verse. Or when he handed out photos from his childhood confirmation at a rally in Iowa. Or when he commented that Cruz’s father is from Cuba, and “not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba.”

Republican candidate Donald Trump stated his intentions to "protect Christianity," when speaking at Liberty University on Jan. 18. He went on to quote a passage from "Two Corinthians," which is more often called "Second Corinthians." (  / Reuters)

As Trump spoke at Liberty on Monday, students snickered when he referred to “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians,” and Cruz campaign staffers joked about the mistake on Twitter.

Liberty claims to be the world’s largest Christian university, and students are required to attend a chapel service three times a week called “convocation.” It’s here that Cruz launched his presidential campaign. Two other Republicans — former Florida governor Jeb Bush and retired surgeon Ben Carson — as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a Democratic presidential hopeful, have all been recent guest speakers. Trump first spoke at a convocation in 2012 and has kept in close touch with Falwell.

On Monday, the Liberty audience was heavy with fans of Cruz and Carson, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The crowd was more likely to politely laugh at Trump’s jokes than to boisterously cheer his campaign platforms. Those who plan to vote for Trump often said they would do so for reasons other than his religion, echoing Falwell’s opening thoughts.

Jonathan Cody Hildebrand, a 19-year-old sophomore studying marketing, said he likes Trump, Cruz and Carson — but he plans to vote in the Virginia primary for Trump because he has the best chance of beating Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“What I do know is that the Republican ideals line up with my Christian faith, so anyone on the right is better suited for me than anyone on the left,” Hildebrand said. “I know a lot of people speak of his ego and how that’s not a Christian value — but I honestly think his ego is what gets things done. I’m okay with an egotistical president. He wants to be the best, and I think for that reason, he gets things done.”

Kenny Brown, 62, who owns a company that makes machine parts, said that he respects the religious beliefs of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) but that Huckabee’s “spiritual beliefs are so hard, so strong,” that they could get in the way of leading the nation. Brown said he likes that Trump has a good set of guiding morals but would put the good of the country above all else.

“He does lose his temper quite often, but Jesus lost his temper quite often, too,” Brown said. “. . . He’s not a perfect man, not perfect by a long ways, but when you look at what our country needs, you’ve got to have a good man, an honest man.”

Maria Teague, the 48-year-old mother of a Liberty student, said that right now Cruz is her top pick because of his “Christian values,” but she also likes that Trump is an outsider who isn’t tied to big donors.

“I just feel like Trump will stand up for our country versus some of the regular politicians that we’ve had for years,” said Teague, who drove more than four hours from North Carolina for the event. “He doesn’t have anything to gain — he’s got all of the money that he ever needs, he has all of the popularity that anybody would ever want. I mean, what other reason would he want to be president?”

Teague isn’t convinced by Trump’s claims of religious devotion, however: “He didn’t know where his favorite scripture was — that kind of showed me that he was kind of bluffing that one a little bit.”

Some high-level evangelical leaders are baffled at why their colleagues and followers would embrace Trump. They are concerned about Trump’s personal history, inflammatory comments about minorities, and unwillingness to seek forgiveness or admit fault.

“The late Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the son who bore his name had endorsed the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States,” John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Action, said in a statement Monday. “Trump is a thrice married owner of casinos with strip clubs and would give us the first ‘First Lady’ who has proudly posed in the nude while supporting gay marriage and funding Planned Parenthood with taxpayer money.”

Russell Moore, an official with the Southern Baptist Convention, said that he was “disturbed” that Falwell invited Trump to speak on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and that Trump’s comments about immigrants and African Americans constitute “race baiting.”

As Trump spoke, Moore posted a stream of critical comments on Twitter: “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”

In another tweet he wrote: “This would be hilarious if it weren’t so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Pulliam Bailey reported from Washington. Scott Clement and Jose DelReal in Washington contributed to this report.