President Donald Trump has told graduates of Liberty University, the nation's largest Christian college, to "embrace" the label of an outsider.

Trump paid tribute to the university's president, one of his earliest political supporters, and criticized the Washington establishment as the keynote of his remarks at Liberty's commencement ceremony Saturday.

"Relish the opportunity to be an outsider," Trump told a crowd of about 50,000 at the school's stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia. "Being an outsider is fine. Embrace the label, because it's the outsiders who change the world."

The speech was Trump's first commencement address and his first extended public appearance since Tuesday, when he abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating Russia's role in last year's U.S. presidential election as well as possible connections between Trump's campaign and the Russian government.

Liberty University students cheer after hearing "L
Liberty University students cheer after hearing "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave" at the Christian school's commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Virginia, May 13, 2017. (C. Presutti/VOA)


Continuing his populist, anti-establishment narrative, the president said he has seen "firsthand how the system is broken" in Washington. He urged Liberty's graduates to resist "a small group of failed voices who think they know everything."


"We don't need a lecture from Washington on how to lead our lives," said Trump.

Liberty graduates more than 18,000 students this year; about 6,000 of them attended Saturday's ceremony.

Before the address, Trump and Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. stood for the U.S. national anthem. Falwell, the son of the late televangelist and conservative activist Jerry Falwell, was widely seen as having helped Trump win 80 percent of the white evangelical vote.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that three-quarters of white evangelicals approved of Trump's performance during his first 100 days in office, compared with 39 percent of the general public.

A group of Liberty University graduates file to th
Liberty University graduates file to the school's commencement ceremony, in Lynchburg, Virginia, May 13, 2017. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Before the friendly crowd, Trump expressed his appreciation for evangelicals. “Boy, did you come out and vote,” he said.

The president received some of the loudest applause when he assured the crowd that he would continue to protect their religious freedom.

Trump pledges protection for conservatives

“As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart,” he said.

Some of the six thousand Liberty University gradua
Some of the 6,000 Liberty University graduates are seen in the school's football stadium for the Christian university's 44th commencement, in Lynchburg, Virginia, May 13, 2017.

Christian conservatives have been pleased with Trump's appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and his choice of socially conservative Cabinet members and other officials, such as Charmaine Yoest, a prominent anti-abortion activist who was tapped as assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some Christian conservatives have given mixed reviews, though, to Trump's executive order that directs the Internal Revenue Service to relax a rarely enforced limit on partisan political church activity. The order did not address broad exemptions from recognizing same-sex marriage, one of the most pressing issues for religious conservatives.

Watch VOA's Carolyn Presutti reporting earlier in the day:

Trump has spoken at Liberty University before. While campaigning there in January 2016, he drew laughs from audience members when he referred to one of the Bible's books as "Two Corinthians" rather than the more common "Second Corinthians." He promised during that speech, "We're going to protect Christianity. ... I don't have to be politically correct."

Trump is the second sitting president to deliver a commencement speech at the university. George H.W. Bush was the first to do so in 1990.

Not an empty seat can be seen in the 34,000-seat L
Not an empty seat could be seen in Liberty University's football stadium as new graduates and others gathered to hear from President Donald Trump. (C. Presutti/VOA)