LYNCHBURG—Vice President Mike Pence urged Liberty University graduates Saturday to hold their faith close with them as they begin a new chapter of their lives, saying that the right for Christians to freely worship is threatened and must be defended.

“America needs men and women of integrity and faith now more than ever,” he said to a crowd of more than 45,000. “The truth is we live in a time when the freedom of religion is under assault.”

Pence’s address marked the midpoint of Liberty’s 46th commencement exercises, which featured the largest graduating class in the university’s history. An estimated 8,000 graduates attended.

Family and friends began to fill Williams Stadium at 6 a.m. after passing through Secret Service checkpoints. With Pence’s appearance, there was a significant law enforcement presence on campus and officials briefly closed U.S. 460 to make way for the vice president’s motorcade. He arrived in Lynchburg aboard Air Force 2 with his wife Karen and was greeted by a crowd of supporters at Lynchburg Regional Airport.

Pence, an outspoken evangelical Christian, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001–13 before becoming governor of Indiana. He was elected vice president in 2016 with Donald Trump on the top of the ticket. His address at Liberty comes just two years after President Trump delivered the school’s commencement address. Last year, former President Jimmy Carter was the featured speaker.

In a speech that lasted about half an hour, Pence drew a direct line between religion and the strength of the country. He asked graduates to remain faithful to themselves, Liberty’s principles and God as they enter their careers.

“America has always been a nation of faith and as our first vice president, John Adams, said, ‘our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’ So, just know as you strengthen your foundation of faith and the foundation of faith among the American people, you will be strengthening the foundation of America itself,” he said.Still, there are reasons for the class of 2019 to celebrate, Pence said, namely that the new graduates will enter the job market amid a period of sustained job growth, which he attributed to work of the Trump administration.

“Unemployment is at a 50-year low and there are more Americans working today than ever before in the history of this country,” he said. “And this year, for the first time ever, there are more job openings in America than there are Americans looking for work. That’s good timing, Liberty.”LU President Jerry Falwell Jr. introduced Pence as dedicated public servant and “one of the most engaged and influential vice presidents” of his lifetime. He awarded Pence an honorary doctorate of laws for what he called Pence’s “nobility of character,” among other virtues.

During his remarks, Falwell said the recent academic year was among the best in the school’s history. He touted the university’s high bar pass rate among law students; the hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours served by LU students; and a strong season by the men’s basketball team, which included a March Madness bid, as proof of Liberty’s growing influence.

Pence was not the only member of the Trump administration at Saturday’s graduation. Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, also attended commencement and briefly addressed graduates. According to numbers provided by Liberty officials, 20,731 students graduated Saturday. Of that number, 16,531 earned their degree through LU online and 3,670 were residential students.

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