Jerry Falwell Jr. said Monday that Donald Trump has lived his life in the spirit of Jesus Christ, giving a major boost to the billionaire businessman as he campaigned at Liberty University — a bastion of Christian conservatism that has become a must-visit stop for GOP presidential contenders.
Mr. Falwell, the school president, said he even saw parallels between his late father, Liberty founder Jerry Falwell Sr., and Mr. Trump, whom he praised for financially supporting Christian causes and for an expansive generosity of spirit.
“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment,” Mr. Falwell said at a convocation at Liberty University.
The glowing review comes as Republicans are battling for the support of evangelical voters, who make up a large portion of the GOP primary electorate in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the early-voting states.
But the praise ignited a feverish debate within evangelical circles, with other leaders saying Mr. Falwell was off base in casting Mr. Trump as a credible candidate for their movement to embrace.
“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,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. “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.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to questions about whether Mr. Falwell plans to officially endorse his candidacy.
For his part, Mr. Trump said the Bible is the best book ever written — putting his book, “The Art of the Deal,” a distant second — and promised to “protect Christianity.”
“If you look what’s going on throughout the world, you look at Syria, where, if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads,” Mr. Trump said. “You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege. I’m a Protestant, I’m very proud of it — Presbyterian, to be exact. But I’m proud of it — very, very proud of it.”
At a key moment in the speech, however, Mr. Trump demonstrated his unfamiliarity with evangelical and Christian biblical discourse when he cited the university’s “School Verse,” which reads: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The verse is taken from part of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, commonly denoted as 2 Corinthians 3:17.
However Mr. Trump cited the verse as “Two Corinthians, Three, Seventeen,” drawing laughter from the crowd and hours of ridicule on social media for flubbing the reference. Most evangelicals refer to the book as “Second Corinthians.”
Mr. Trump is battling Sen. Ted Cruz for the lead in polling in Iowa, while in South Carolina Mr. Trump holds a comfortable lead over Mr. Cruz, according to an Opinion Savvy/Augusta Chronicle poll released Monday that found him ahead by 15 percentage points.
Christian voters make up the lion’s share of voters in both states, according to exit polls from 2012, which found that nearly 60 percent of Iowa caucusgoers and South Carolina primary voters identified as evangelical or born-again Christian.
Political handicappers say that winning those voters is key to Mr. Cruz’s chances of winning the nomination.
Mr. Trump, though, is trying to make inroads. The Christian Broadcasting Network reported last week that the businessman will sit down with televangelist Pat Robertson next month and speak to students at the school he founded, Regent University. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have already appeared at the school, and plans are being laid to have Mr. Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio appear at some point too.
Mr. Trump has managed to overcome hiccups with evangelicals before. Over the summer he told an Iowa forum sponsored by Liberty University and others that he believes in God but doesn’t ask forgiveness for his sins.
Mr. Falwell said Christian voters should be wary of applying strict litmus tests to candidates in the race. He said his father came under fire in 1980 for backing Ronald Reagan, a divorced Hollywood actor, over Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday schoolteacher.
“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 beliefs,” Mr. Falwell said. “He was electing the president of the United States, and the abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not always line up with those 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,” Mr. Falwell said.
Mr. Falwell also said Mr. Trump’s decision to self-fund his campaign gives him an independence the other candidates, “who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters,” should envy.