DAVENPORT, Iowa — Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. offered a glowing affirmation of Donald Trump’s character and generosity Saturday night — serving as a critical character witness for the real estate mogul 48 hours before voters head to the Iowa caucuses.
The surprising decision by Falwell, the president of Liberty University, to endorse Trump this week sent shockwaves through the university’s alumni community. Many were deeply troubled that Falwell would give his personal endorsement given Trump’s once liberal views and the dramatic shift in his position on abortion in the 1990s to today.
It comes at a time when the evangelical community in Iowa is deeply divided between Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (and to a lesser extent other GOP candidates, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has been rising in the polls).
Falwell doubled down on his endorsement Saturday night as he appeared with Trump on the campaign trail. His praise was effusive — at times almost fawning — as he essentially told the Davenport crowd that he was willing to take the heat over his decision.
Trump, he said at least twice, reminded him of his father, the famed televangelist and Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell Sr. He cited private acts of generosity that he said Trump does not typically boast about — from financial assistance that he said the mogul offered to a couple who helped him with his broken-down limousine to his aid for an inner city basketball team.
By way of explaining his endorsement of Trump, Falwell noted that any parent who had a sick child would seek the best doctor they could find.
“It may not be a doctor who goes to your church, but it’s the one who has the most experience with that particular illness,” he said.
His father, he added, “was criticized in the late 1970s, early ’80s, because he supported Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried, over Jimmy Carter, who was a Sunday school teacher — a southern Baptist Sunday school teacher,” Falwell said.
“You know, I think he made the right decision. He explained that when he went into the voting booth, he wasn’t trying to elect a Sunday school teacher, or pastor, or even somebody who shared his theological beliefs,” Falwell said. “He was trying to elect the most qualified person to be the president of the United States. We know Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher; but look how he did as President.”
“I’m not saying that it always works that way,” Falwell added. “But I just really believe Donald Trump is uniquely qualified to run this country and I’m proud to be endorsing him.”