In his first commencement address at Liberty University’s 44th commencement ceremony Saturday, President Donald Trump encouraged students to persevere and highlighted their faith.
Trump is the second sitting president to speak at Liberty University, after George H. W. Bush in 1990, according to Liberty University’s President, Jerry Falwell Jr. The President addressed over 50,000 attendees, including over 6,000 graduates .
“If I give you one message to hold in your hearts today it’s this: never, ever give up,” Trump said.
He reminded students of Liberty’s humble beginnings, and encouraged them to persist in the face of difficulties.
“No one has ever achieved anything without a chorus of critics standing on the sidelines explaining why it can’t be done,” he said.
His message of perseverance resonated with James Southerland, a 60-year-old graduate from Liberty’s master’s program.
“I have children in college, and they’re all looking at me like, ‘Oh, okay, Dad, I guess we have to finish now because you finished,’” Southerland explained.
Trump spoke of his ties with Liberty, recalling that, as a boy, he loved watching Jerry Falwell Sr. on TV and hearing him preach.
“I’ve been watching it grow, because I’ve been a friend of Liberty for a long time now, Jerry,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
Trump received an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree as part of the ceremony. According to Falwell, the degree recognized Trump’s commitment to his country and the citizens forgotten by the government, his bold leadership, and his determination to make America great again.
“I do not believe that any president in our lifetimes has done so much that has benefitted the Christian community in such a short timespan than Donald Trump,” Falwell said.
Falwell highlighted Trump’s recent actions in renewing support for Israel, as well as appointing a conservative, strict-constructionist, pro-life Supreme Court Justice and many people of faith to his cabinet. He also noted Trump’s retaliation against those in the Middle East who were persecuting and killing Christians, choosing Mike Pence as his running mate, and signing the executive order to return free speech rights to churches, religious leaders and universities, like Liberty. Trump referenced these actions in his support of the faith Liberty promotes.
“I must tell you, I am so proud as your president to have helped you along over the past short period of time,” Trump said. “I said I was going to do it, and, Jerry, I did it.”
Trump highlighted faith in his address, tracing America’s Christian roots from the prayer of the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers calling on God, to today’s judges swearing oaths on the Bible and the recognition of God on U.S. currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“In America we don’t worship government, we worship God,” Trump said.
America is beginning a new chapter, Trump said.
“As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart. We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and to follow his teachings.”
Watch the full commencement address:
Student opinion was mixed over Trump’s appearance at their graduation ceremony. While many said it was an honor, some were less favorable.
According to Caitlyn Richard, who graduated with a major in strategic communication, the student body had been worried that Trump might turn the event into a personal platform. This had also concerned Joshua Miller, a graduate from the Honors Program who wrote his Senior Honors Thesis exploring how Trump had won the presidency.
“I’m not that fond of Trump as a person,” he said. “I’ve never tried to hide that fact.”
But Miller said he was pleasantly surprised by how Trump had focused on the students, their parents, and the school in his speech.
“I think it was a message of hope. It was very encouraging, and on the whole, I’m just grateful that I could be here,” Miller said.
Richard said she thought Trump was doing a good job representing the values of Liberty in America, but Southerland differed.
“He’s friends of President Falwell, but his views are not the views that this school portrays,” he said. “I’m actually kind of surprised that he’s here.”
Southerland said he hoped that Trump’s time at Liberty and his friendship with Falwell would influence him positively.
“I guess everybody deserves a chance,” he said.
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