Lynchburg, VA — In the wake of his tough primary battle, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Saturday came to fortify his fragile bond with the evangelical community at Liberty University, the bulwark of Christian conservatism in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
While not addressing his faith directly, Romney delivered a graceful commencement speech that emphasized the ties that bind the first major party Mormon candidate for president and conservative Christians.
“There is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action,” Romney proclaimed. “People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
The speech represented his most overtly spiritual remarks to date — a breakthrough moment for the notoriously scripted candidate who spoke movingly about the positive influence faith has had both in his life and in American democracy.
“What we have, what we wish we had – ambitions fulfilled, ambitions disappointed; investments won, investments lost; elections won, elections lost – these things may occupy our attention, but they do not define us,” he told a large crowd of about 34,000 graduates and their family members. “ … The best advice I know is, to give those worldly things your best but never your all, reserving the ultimate hope for the only one who can grant it.”
Romney also tried on the mantle of culture warrior for size. Following on the heels of President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage this week, Romney gave an unequivocal rebuttal that seemed to be ripped from the stump speech of ex-rival Rick Santorum, whom he even referenced by name.
“Culture matters,” Romney said. “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”
His staunch opposition to same-sex marriage, which provided one of the rare political moments in the speech, is helping Romney build a bridge to evangelicals, who hopscotched from one candidate to another in the primaries while shunning the front-runner. Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, told the Washington Post recently, “So many people were rather lukewarm toward Governor Romney and were really looking for some more tangible reasons to support him. Then lo and behold, it just fell out of the sky when Obama came out and endorsed same-sex marriage.”
Romney took the stage shortly after the choir finished belting out “Ride on, King Jesus.” In introducing him to the sprawling outdoor crowd, Liberty board member and Romney adviser Mark DeMoss acknowledged “I won’t agree with Mitt Romney on everything,” but he added, “I trust him, I trust him to do the right thing, the moral thing for this country. I trust his values because I am convinced they mirror my own.”
His appearance at the school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell as a training ground for “young champions of Christ” was bound to be helpful to Romney’s campaign too.
There was no “Sistah Souljah” moment that some had anticipated, in which Romney would distance himself from the more extreme elements of the religious right, as President Clinton did in spelling out his differences with hip hop activist Sistah Souljah and the radical left. By the numbers, Romney referenced God eight times, Christ three times, Santorum once but Mormonism, taught in Liberty classes as a cult religion, not at all.
That is a contrast to similar addresses at Liberty by his ex-rivals for the GOP nomination. Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a stirring story of his spiritual journey after coming home from the Air Force, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota described the moment when she “radically abandoned” herself to Jesus Christ. And, true to form, pizza magnate Herman Cain made a stop in Lynchburg on a leg of his book tour.
Romney, even as a guest, was initially treated as an outsider at Liberty. The announcement that he would be the commencement speaker prompted an uproar. A graduation Facebook page was overrun with hundreds of posts objecting to the choice.
But on Saturday, the crowd received him warmly and Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the founder who now heads the school, called Romney “the next president of the United States.” The university presented Romney with a chair, engraved with, “There’s always room for you at our table.”
Romney’s message struck the right chord with Dean Shelton, a 74-year-old retiree who lives in Lynchburg. Common faith is important, Shelton said, but shared values are even more so. “What I liked about it was that he had the right philosophy on life that we share,” he said. “We’re not electing a minister, we’re electing a president.”
For Craig and Rene Yoshino, who traveled from Seattle to see their daughter graduate, the candidate’s references to culture and traditional marriage were essential, although neither believes that Mormonism is a segment of Christianity.
“It’s what matters for salvation, but not for the presidency,” he said. “Between Obama and Romney, Romney fits more closely with us.”
Among others, however, there was a residual antipathy to a candidate they feel was foisted on them after more conservative candidates lost in the primaries.
Sharon Shown of Thomasville, N.C., 60, said she thinks Mormonism is a cult, and that conservative candidates were run off by the GOP elite. “Mitt Romney is a politician,” she said. “I believe he accomplished what he came here to accomplish, which is to get everyone on board.”
Come November, she said she’ll vote for Romney as the lesser of two evils, but she won’t be happy about it.