Vice President Mike Pence had a message for Liberty University's graduating class of 2019: "Be ready."
But as Pence looked out over the sea of people dressed in navy graduation caps and matching gowns on the breezy, overcast Saturday, the focus of his commencement address wasn't on preparing graduates for the difficulties they may face landing jobs or paying off student loans.
Those with degrees from the private evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, may likely face a unique obstacle in their post-grad lives, Pence said -- being "shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible."
"Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs," Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, told the approximately 8,000 graduates at the ceremony. "As you go about your daily life, just be ready because you're going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith, you're going to be asked to endorse them. You're going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture."
Pence appeared to be speaking from personal experience as he and his wife, Karen, who was in attendance Saturday, have recently faced considerable backlash for their conservative Christian views.
Just last month, Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the gay mayor from Pence's home state of Indiana, drew widespread attention when he criticized the vice president for using religion to support his stances on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
In January, Karen Pence came under fire for her decision to teach art at a Christian school that seeks to bar gay and transgender students and staff.
The vice president's religious views are also at the center of a controversy that has cast a shadow over his next graduation appearance later this week when he is scheduled to speak at Taylor University, an evangelical Christian school in rural Indiana.
In April, an online petition was created calling for Pence's invitation to be rescinded on the grounds that having him be a commencement speaker would make the university "complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration's policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear."
"Throughout most of American history, it's been pretty easy to call yourself Christian," Pence said Saturday. "But things are different now."
At Liberty University's graduation, however, Pence seemed to find himself among tens of thousands of like-minded people.
The vice president took the stage at Arthur L. Williams Stadium to a standing ovation and chants of "U-S-A" after a glowing introduction from the university's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump. In 2017, Trump delivered his first commencement speech as president at Liberty.
The approximately 30-minute speech started off sounding more like a political rally, with Pence touting the Trump administration's achievements, before seguing to religion.
"We live in a time when the freedom of religion is under assault," he said, pointing to the spate of deadly attacks that have been recently carried out at places of worship in the U.S. and around the world.
People with religious beliefs now must deal with those who feel it is "acceptable and even fashionable to ridicule and even discriminate" against them, Pence said, specifically calling out "Hollywood liberals," the media and the "secular left."
Pence recalled the "harsh attacks" he and his wife were subjected to following the news of her teaching position earlier this year, describing the criticisms of a Christian education as "un-American."
"I'm proud to report our administration has already taken decisive action to protect religious liberty," he said. "We will always stand up for the right of Americans to live, to learn and to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience."
But still, Pence cautioned graduates to "be prepared to meet opposition" as they go out into the world. On Saturday, nearly 21,000 people earned degrees, marking Liberty's largest graduating class, the News & Advance reported.
"Decide here and now that you're going to stand firm," Pence said. "You'll always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have, and you'll do so with gentleness and respect."
On social media, reactions to Pence's remarks reflected the stark division that has emerged in the ongoing debate about politics and religion. Conservatives rallied behind the vice president's guidance, clashing with critics who felt that Pence and people who share his views face ridicule not for their faith but rather "for being hypocrites."
In a tweet, Franklin Graham, the son of the prominent evangelist Billy Graham and a vocal Trump supporter, shared the speech with his more than 1.92 million followers.