LYNCHBURG, Va. — Seeking to connect with the community of evangelicals that has been cold to his candidacy for many months, Mitt Romney delivered a commencement speech at Liberty University on Saturday that delved deeply into his faith while arguing that Christians of all different creeds could come together in the name of service.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 30,000 at the school founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, the presumed Republican nominee took the stage after an admonition from Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. — who was quoting his father — that the American people will be “electing a commander in chief, not a pastor or a religious leader” in November.
In a speech that mentioned God no less than nine times, Romney sought to reassure evangelicals of their shared conservative principles: his belief in the primacy of family, his opposition to gay marriage and his intent to champion religious liberty in a nation that “from the beginning,” he said, “trusted in God, not man.”
After a series of primaries in which conservative Christians and evangelicals favored Romney’s rival, Rick Santorum, by sometimes huge margins because the former Massachusetts governor’s shifts on key issues like abortion and suspicion among some voters about his Mormon faith, Romney spoke repeatedly of how his faith in Jesus Christ had guided his life and told the 6,000 graduates assembled before him that “trusting in God and in his purpose for each of us makes for more than a good sermon; it makes for a good life.”
Romney never explicitly mentioned that he is a Mormon, but he directly addressed the reservations that some in the audience have about his religion with a line midway through his 20-minute speech:
“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,” Romney said. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. The best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God’s love into every life.”
While he received standing ovations before and after the speech, there was just one line that brought the entire crowd to its feet during his remarks. That was his allusion to same-sex marriage, which President Obama embraced this week after saying for several years that his position was “evolving.” Romney won sustained applause after praising the “enduring institution of marriage” and reaffirming his belief that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”
A sampling of the crowd revealed few who said Romney was their first choice in the Republican primaries. But most also said that there was no question that they would support him in November against Obama.