When the late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, one of his main goals was to oppose President Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist who forced American politicos to learn the term "born again."
Months later, Ronald Reagan coyly told a flock of evangelicals: "I know you can't endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you."
People may have forgotten how odd that marriage was back then, recalled Jerry Falwell, Jr., as he introduced Donald Trump at Liberty University.
"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," said Falwell, Liberty's president, at a campus Martin Luther King Day convocation.
"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out we are all sinners. … Dad explained that when he walked in the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not line up with those needed to run a church."
The GOP frontrunner's campaign trail pilgrimage to Liberty was a two-act drama -- Falwell's sermon-length introduction and then Trump's stump speech, with a few extra shots of faith. Falwell stopped short of endorsing Trump, but the New York billionaire and reality-television icon did everything he could to endorse Liberty.
Above all, argued Falwell, religious believers must judge Trump by his skills and deeds, not his past. In words that drew fire in social media, he called Trump a "servant" leader who "lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment."
One of the most quoted reactions came from the Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Washington, D.C., office. During the event he tweeted: "Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery."
Writing in The New York Times, Moore argued that embracing Trump would force religious conservatives to "repudiate everything they believe." After all, the real-estate magnate has built his career on "gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate." In a life packed with boasts about having it all, he added, Trump once proclaimed -- in writing -- that he "gets to sleep with some of the 'top women in the world.' "
That was then. On this occasion, Trump opened by boasting about his poll numbers, then rushed to assure his listeners that he was on their side.
"We're going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don't have to be politically correct. We're going to protect it. … I hear this is a major theme right here. Two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3:17, that's the whole ball game. Where the spirit of the Lord -- right? Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,' " he said, referring to a Bible passage displayed prominently on campus.
"We are going to protect Christianity. If you look at what's going on throughout the world, you look at Syria, where there if you are a Christian, they're chopping off heads. You look at different places and Christianity, it's under siege."
Trump stressed how "very, very proud" he is to be a Protestant -- "Presbyterian, to be exact" -- and said the 70 to 75 percent of Americans who claim to be Christians must band together to push for change since "very bad things are happening." He promised to "knock the hell out of ISIS" and that, "If I'm president, you're gonna see 'Merry Christmas' in department stores. Believe me."
Trump used blunt words crafted for populists angry about losing, sick of compromises and tired of watching politicians break their promises. Claiming outsider status, Trump endorsed their anger.
Yes, Trump is not a Sunday school candidate, admitted Falwell. Then again, he said, "for decades, conservatives and evangelicals have chosen the political candidates who have told us what we wanted to hear on social, religious and political issues only to be betrayed by those same candidates after they were elected."