Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. stopped short of making an endorsement of Donald Trump Monday when he praised the 2016 Republican presidential frontrunner as one of the "greatest visionaries of our time," and a servant-leader who follows the teachings of Jesus.
Russell Moore, head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, however, shredded Falwell's praise of Trump as "absolutely unbelievable" in a series of tweets during Trump's nearly 50-minute speech.
"Trading in the Gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery," Moore tweeted.
Falwell invoked the character of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and his own father in a glowing introduction of the billionaire real estate baron to a record crowd at the Lynchburg, Virginia campus of the Christian college where the address took place. He was able to do support Trump, he said, because they had become fast friends after the businessman's visit to the campus in 2012.
"As our friendship has grown, so has my admiration for Mr. Trump. Whenever we were in New York we were asked to drop by and say hello at the Trump Tower on 5th Avenue. Mr. Trump is loyal to his friends even new friends like us," he said before adding a caveat to his praise. "As you know Liberty University does not support or oppose candidates for public office and Mr. Trump's appearance here should not be interpreted by any as an endorsement by Liberty."
He went on however to tout finer qualities of Mr. Trump beyond the brash and unapologetic reputation he has developed in the media, such as that time the Republic frontrunner donated $100,000 to a Christian ministry project or paid off the home mortgage of a couple who had stopped to help him when his vehicle broke down on a deserted highway.
"Matthew 7:16 tells us that by their fruits you shall know them. Donald Trump's life has borne fruit, fruit that has provided jobs to multitudes of people in addition to the many he has helped with his generosity. I've met three of his children in the last week and I can tell you they are personable, kind, humble and successful in their family lives and in their vocations. A real credit to their father and to the Trump family," said Falwell.
"I have seen firsthand that his staff loves him and is loyal to him because of his servant leadership. In my opinion Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment," he continued.
Falwell then warned the audience of conflating Christian values and secular leadership roles to the point of mutual exclusivity.
"My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher," he said.
"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out that we are all sinners, every one of us and when Jesus said surrender unto Caesar what is due to Caesar, that meant we out to be good citizens — voting, acting in the political process, serving in our armed forces if necessary — and while Jesus never told us who to vote for he gave us all common sense to choose the best leaders and the ability to choose the best leaders," Falwell noted.
"My dad explained that 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 belief. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents and abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not always line up with what was needed to run a church or a congregation. After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry," he quipped quickly.
"I see a lot of parallels between my father and Mr. Trump. Like Mr. Trump, dad would speak his mind. He would make statements that were politically incorrect. He even had a billboard at the entrance to this campus that read 'Liberty University, politically incorrect since 1971.'"
Falwell then invoked King's memory.
"Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in this convocation a few years ago. She told me of how her father was loving and generous in his personal relationships with others but he spoke the truth no matter how unpopular it was," said Falwell.
"That boldness cost him his life. Dr. King was in good company. Jesus himself also healed the sick, cared for the poor the widows and orphans, was accused of being a friend of publicans and sinners because he hung out with those who were down and out. The wrong crowd so to speak. And he also made public statements that were so radical and unpopular that the religious and political establishments of his day crucified Him," he continued.
Trump he said, sacrificed his privacy, popularity as a TV personality and his business enterprises all because he "loves this country and he desires more than anything to make America great again."
The real estate mogul who has been married three times told CNN's Jake Tapper in an interview that aired Sunday on "State of the Union" that he has changed from the wild ways of his younger years and is currently more invested in being good to the point where he doesn't have to ask God for forgiveness.
"I have great relationship with God, I have great relationship with the Evangelicals. In fact nationwide I'm up by a lot, I'm leading everybody," said Trump before standing by comments he made months ago that he has never asked God for forgiveness.
"I like to be good I don't like to have to ask for forgiveness and I am good. I don't do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that's bad. I live a very different life than probably a lot of people would think," Trump said.
With less than two weeks before the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 1, Donald Trump trails only rival Ted Cruz in the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll. Trump will visit the state on Tuesday.