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Pence tries to stem evangelical rebellion against Trump

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence on Wednesday framed the decision between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as an epochal choice, and implied that Christians who sit out the election lack courage.

“When the annals of this time in American history are written, the question will be, ‘Where were you?’ Where were we in the great battle for life and liberty and freedom in America? What did you do?” Pence said in a speech at Liberty University, a Christian university of 15,000 on-campus students in southwest Virginia.

“There’s no place for believers on the sidelines at a time like this,” Pence said. “It’s a time for courage.”

Pence left no room for the possibility that conservative evangelicals might actually consider standing against Trump on moral grounds.

But on the very campus where he spoke, a group of Liberty students seized on Pence’s appearance to start publicly circulating a strongly worded petition repudiating Trump and distancing themselves from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. because of his outspoken support for Trump.

“We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history. Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him,” the petition states.

“Because our president has led the world to believe that Liberty University supports Donald Trump, we students must take it upon ourselves to make clear that Donald Trump is absolutely opposed to what we believe, and does not have our support,” the petition says. “We want the world to know how many students oppose him. We don’t want to champion Donald Trump; we want only to be champions for Christ.”

The petition also takes Falwell to task for defending Trump’s comments on a 2005 videotape in which he talks graphically about forcing himself physically on women and sexually assaulting them.

“Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense — taking the name ‘Liberty University’ with him. ‘We’re all sinners,’ Falwell told the media, as if sexual assault is a shoulder-shrugging issue rather than an atrocity which plagues college campuses across America, including our own,” the petition states.

The petition is just one sign that while a majority of evangelical Christians still support Trump — many of them reluctantly — there are substantial numbers for whom it is a bridge too far. The Public Religion Research Institute’s latest poll shows 65 percent of white evangelicals supporting Trump. In 2012, 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The Barna Group’s latest survey shows an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction with the presidential choices among evangelicals. “More than four out of ten evangelicals currently refuse to vote for either of those two candidates,” George Barna wrote.

Christianity Today magazine released a scathing denunciation of Trump this week, calling him “the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.” World Magazine, another major Christian publication, printed its own editorial on Tuesday calling for Trump to step aside and let someone else run for president as the GOP nominee. World editor Marvin Olasky quoted Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler in agreement: “We should not ‘allow a national disgrace to become the Great Evangelical Embarrassment.’” And several prominent female leaders in the evangelical world have said they can no longer support Trump since the release of the 2005 tape.

At Liberty, Trump was rejected by most students in the Virginia primary last spring, despite having spoken there and promising to “protect Christianity.” He received only 8 percent of the vote from students. Sen. Marco Rubio was their first choice, with 44 percent, and Sen. Ted Cruz received 33 percent.

“A majority of Liberty students, faculty and staff feel as we do,” the Liberty student petition asserts. In an interview, the petition’s endorsers said they have encountered many students who are afraid to publicly speak out against Falwell’s support for Trump because they have jobs on campus and don’t want to lose them, or because the culture at Liberty places a high priority on respecting people in positions of authority, especially Christian leaders.

Dustin Wahl, one of the creators of the petition, told Yahoo News that he and the other students circulating the petition “all respect President Falwell, but feel free to challenge a Christian leader because challenging a Christian leader is a good way of showing them respect, holding them accountable.”

“But to a lot of students here, they see it as speaking out against someone who has been placed in their life to be their leader, and they feel like that’s something that will not allow them to keep their job or their good standing with other people, so they stay quiet,” Wahl said.

Liberty has in the past enforced a strict set of rules governing student speech on campus that prohibited circulation of petitions not approved in advance by school officials, though some of those restrictions have been eased in the past year, the petition organizers said.

And when a Yahoo News reporter tried to solicit student opinions about Trump and Falwell on the anonymous social media forum Yik Yak, the question disappeared after a few minutes. Students in the chat speculated that Liberty officials sometimes monitor the app and downvote submissions in order to make them go away, although there is no evidence of that. The app is blocked on the school’s wireless network.

Wahl said that he thinks a majority of students on Liberty’s campus will vote for Trump, but only out of opposition to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, interviews with students before Pence’s speech revealed little enthusiasm for Trump. Clay Goupil sat with three male friends, wearing an American flag bow tie and a suit jacket. Goupil said the Liberty campus, while politically conservative for the most part, is not pro-Trump. All four friends were regular listeners to the podcast of Ben Shapiro, an outspoken conservative critic of Trump who also used to work at the pro-Trump website Breitbart News with Steve Bannon, now one of Trump’s senior advisers.

The four said they sense hostility toward their faith perspective from many corners of the culture, and they like Trump’s business credentials. But only one said he would be voting for Trump. Goupil, who is voting by absentee ballot in his home state of Florida, said he was undecided and might vote for Trump. His friend Josh Wilson, also voting absentee in another swing state, Pennsylvania, said he might leave the presidential choice blank or write in another name.

During Pence’s speech, the audience was unenthusiastic when Pence talked about electing Trump president at the top of his speech. They warmed up and gave several standing ovations to Pence when he criticized Clinton, or talked about being pro-life or pro-Israel.

Pence, who was rumored to have been considering dropping off the ticket with Trump when the 2005 tape first broke into the news cycle, argued that Christians should forgive Trump for his indiscretions.

“As Christians, we are called to forgive even as we are forgiven,” Pence said. “My running mate showed humility … and then he fought back and turned the focus to the choice we face.”

Pence also sought to stir up evangelicals against Clinton by expressing outrage over emails in a Wikileaks document dump in which a Clinton adviser, Jennifer Palmieri, says many elite conservatives convert to Catholicism because “their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”

Pence called the emails “bigoted anti-Catholic, anti-evangelical remarks” and called on Clinton to denounce them and apologize.

Palmieri, however, told reporters that she did not “recognize that email” and implied that it was forged. She said the Russian government has been responsible for cyberattacks on American government and political entities and is “also behind the timing and manner of the leaks.”

“By dribbling these out every day, WikiLeaks is proving they are nothing but a propaganda arm of the Kremlin with a political agenda doing Putin’s dirty work to help elect Donald Trump,” Palmieri said. “The FBI is now investigating this crime, the unanswered questions are why Donald Trump strangely won’t condemn it and whether any of his associates are involved.”