Nathaniel O'Dell, a senior at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., was sitting alone holding a small, dark blue Bible as he awaited Donald Trump's appearance on stage.

Speaking at Liberty University is like a rite of passage for presidential candidates courting evangelical voters who make up an estimated 25 per cent of the U.S. electorate. Texas Senator Ted Cruz even launched his campaign there. 

Trump, who has said the Bible is his favourite book (followed by his own Art of the Deal) was the invited guest for Monday's student assembly, and the 23-year-old O'Dell was there to take his measure.

O'Dell was not among those in the crowd sporting a "Make America Great Again" hat or a Trump T-shirt or button.

In fact, he has mixed views about the boastful billionaire. With two brothers in the navy and a father and uncle who also served, O'Dell likes Trump's support for the military. But he doesn't like his proposal to ban Syrian refugees and, although Trump says he is a proud Presbyterian, O'Dell doesn't see it.

"He's more of a businessman than a faith-driven man," he said. "He doesn't live his faith as well as he should." 

Trump misquotes Bible

Liberty University was founded by the famous televangelist Jerry Falwell and is run by his son, Jerry Falwell Jr. Trump appealed to its audience by telling them that, if elected, he will protect Christianity and re-introduce "Merry Christmas" into the popular vernacular.

But when he bungled a biblical reference — by quoting a passage from "two Corinthians" instead of "second Corinthians" — it prompted snickering in the audience and subsequent mocking online. 

As he typically does in his stump speeches, Trump also quoted his poll numbers."We've done great with the evangelicals," Trump said, "the evangelicals have been amazing."

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Tim Beverley was in the parking lot at 4 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2016, to ensure entrance to Donald Trump's speech at Liberty University in Virginia. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

If not amazing, it is certainly surprising that polls show Trump leading the way with evangelical voters. Their support will be key to winning states like Iowa where close to 60 per cent of voters identify as evangelical Christians.

Indeed, some Christians have noted that Trump is the exact opposite of a candidate they would normally support.

He's on his third marriage, he uses vulgar and insulting language to disparage others, he used to be pro-choice and a gay rights supporter, he loves money and pursues it relentlessly, and he exhibits other behaviour contrary to the Bible's teachings, they say.

"Let's face it, that is a very unlikely group of people to support Donald Trump," Robert Jeffress, pastor at a 12,000-member southern Baptist church in Dallas, said in an interview.

No perfect candidate

And yet, Trump appears to be attracting more evangelicals than Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, all of whom speak often and openly about their religion. Trump is again defying the odds in a campaign that most observers thought would never last.

Jeffress, who hosts TV and radio programs, said evangelicals know Trump isn't a classic Christian role model, but that some are willing to overlook that. Like many Americans, they are drawn to Trump because he's a Washington outsider, he's tough and they feel like the country is off-track and he is the best choice to set it straight.

"I think there is a realization among many Christians that no candidate is perfect. They are allowing some leeway for Mr. Trump," said Jeffress.

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Liberty University student Christian Malave was excited to get Donald Trump's autograph after his speech at the school. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The Texas pastor has met Trump on several occasions, and while he's not endorsing any candidate, he said Trump is full of charisma and "one of the absolute warmest human beings you will ever be around."

Still, David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, and a columnist with Religion News Service, says that many leading pastors and Christian scholars are "alarmed" by Trump.

"There is nothing remotely attractive about the lifestyle, language or piety about Donald Trump from any kind of traditional evangelical perspective," Gushee said in an interview.

"When Trump tries to speak about religion it's almost always awful and not even close to showing any knowledge about Christianity at all or the Bible," he said.

Trump's popularity with evangelicals, though, is a reflection of what's happening generally in the Republican party, said Gushee.

Increasingly white evangelicals are loyal and "wired" into the party, and "in some cases seem more Republican than Christian." They aren't thinking as independently as they used to, in Gushee's view.

"I would call this the political surrender of evangelicals to the Republican party," he said.

Trump 'brash' and 'refreshing'

But while Trump appears to be making inroads with evangelicals, he's not yet the runaway candidate. Some like him, some don't, and there certainly were a variety of opinions in the audience at Liberty.

"He's a little brash and I don't particularly like that," said student Bryce Beman. "He is a little extreme in his views."

Two Liberty alumni were even outside the hall protesting that Trump was the speaker on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of all days.

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David Ricksecker, left, and John Glibert are Liberty Universtiy alumni who were opposed to Donald Trump's speech at the school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18, 2016. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"The fact that he has said so many hateful things, so many ignorant and bigoted things is what concerns me the most," said John Gilbert, a 2014 graduate. "Whether he understands 2 Corinthians, is minute. What really bothers me is when he wants to ban all Muslims from the country or when he says most Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers.

"That kind of stuff, my Christian faith tells me 'OK, I need to make a stand against this.'"

Still,Trump had plenty of fans in the Liberty crowd, many of whom crushed against the barricade as he approached after his speech to greet them.

"I love Donald Trump because Donald Trump says it the way we think it," said Tim Beverley, a member of the public who arrived at Liberty at 4 a.m. to get into the event.

Brian O'Connor, another local resident, said Trump's tell-it-like-it-is attitude is "refreshing" and that "he has the formula to turn the country around." 

Several people said they don't mind if Trump's behaviour or past beliefs contradict Christian values.

"No one's perfect. All of us have our flaws," said Ruel Galang.

"Whatever Donald Trump has done, or what he believes in, God still loves him no matter what," another student, Christian Malave, said after getting Trump's autograph.

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A group of Liberty University students dressed for the occasion when Donald Trump spoke at their school on Jan. 18, 2016. They said they like that Trump is not afraid to offend people. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Many of those in the crowd Monday were reluctant to pass any judgment on how committed Trump is to his faith.

"It's not up to me to decide, that's between him and God," said Bailey Grant.

Austin Miller, who along with four friends wore T-shirts that spelled out T-R-U-M-P, perhaps summed the phenomenon up best: "We're hiring him for president, not to be our preacher."