LYNCHBURG, VIRGINIA – The young evangelical Christians at Liberty University in Virginia, a coveted voting bloc wooed this week by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, are facing a bit of a dilemma.
Should they vote as most evangelicals have in the past, for a “pro-life” anti-abortion candidate, or should they embrace a new set of values?
Daniel Timm, a 26-year-old student at the university in Lynchburg, skipped Trump’s speech on Monday — he went to class instead. He says he has yet to make up his mind over which Republican White House hopeful to back.
His Bible in hand, Timm attended Sunday evening services at Grace Presbyterian Church, a red brick building in an industrial area on the outskirts of town.
“The values I appreciate in a candidate are honesty and being pro-life. Those are major things I look for,” Timm said after a service attended by some 20 worshippers.
A regular church-goer, Timm says he is torn between backing Trump and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
“Both Paul and Trump intend to talk about things that other candidates refuse to talk about, like immigration,” he said.
“They both professed to be Christian men, and I’ll take their words on that,” he added, dodging debate on whether Trump — who misquoted a Bible verse on Monday — really is a man of faith or just tries to project that image.
In any case, Trump’s offensive in this land of evangelical Christians has seen some success.
Many young people on hand Monday said they saw the billionaire real estate tycoon as a man willing to eschew political correctness, even perhaps to try to restore the role of Christianity in multifaith U.S. society.
Some 11,000 people, most of them young, turned out to hear Trump, who depicted himself as a protector of Christianity.
Paul, who hails from the tea party faction of the Republican party, is very popular among young people. Within that demographic, he is even overshadowing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
The candidates clearly favored by evangelical voters in opinion polls — Cruz, Paul or Trump — do not have the same success with young voters.
“If he (Trump) claims to be a Christian or that he truly believes in Christ, it’s not very apparent,” said 18-year-old student Joschua McMillion, who skipped the Trump rally, instead joining a small group protesting his campus visit.
McMillion, who is African-American, said Democrat Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who has spoken of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial problems that plague the United States, including police violence against blacks.
“The main (Republican) candidates haven’t said anything about this,” McMillion said, adding that it was increasingly likely he would vote for Sanders even though he is a Democrat.
“He’s my favorite at this point,” McMillion said.
Like McMillion, many young evangelicals attach a lot of importance to Christian values. But they are shaking up the hierarchy of priorities, stressing social issues sometimes associated with the political left.
Abortion and same-sex marriage are important issues, said 22-year-old student Meredith Fuller.
“I don’t know if I would feel comfortable controlling someone else’s choices, so I don’t know if I would feel comfortable with someone controlling my choices either,” she said.
For now, Fuller says she does not know who she will vote for “because I don’t see any of them voicing concern about issues that concern me in particular,” such as the fate of “people who are being marginalized by society.”
Fuller said her opinions do not represent those of most students at Liberty University. But she is less and less isolated.