Romney graduation speech hits 'home run' with evangelical voters


LYNCHBURG, Virginia – Mitt Romney travelled to Liberty University, the spiritual heart of the conservative movement, on Saturday, seeking to quell concerns about him among evangelical voters by offering a forceful defence of faith and Christian values in public life.

At a graduation speech at the college, founded by the evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Romney made the case that he was bound theologically and politically to the same belief and value system as Christian conservatives, though he never explicitly mentioned his Mormon faith.

In the same week that President Barack Obama galvanized his base by endorsing same-sex marriage, Romney’s message was that evangelicals could count on him to operate as president under “a common worldview”, including his position that marriage should be between only a man and a woman.

American values, he said, “may become topics of democratic debate from time to time. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman”.

It was Romney’s most extensive and direct discussion of religion since his 2007 speech about his own faith and was intended to help him reassure conservatives, some of whom do not accept Mormonism as a Christian religion.

Repeatedly invoking God and citing an array of Christian leaders and thinkers, from Pope John Paul II to the novelist CS Lewis, Romney spoke of the centrality of family and service and the tradition from America’s beginnings of trusting “in God, not man”.

“Religious liberty is the first freedom in our constitution,” he said. “And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.”

Romney acknowledged the divide between his church and evangelical Christians, while suggesting that they seemed more in sync than not. “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,” he said. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”

Mormons consider themselves Christians, as noted in the church’s formal name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but evangelicals don’t consider the Mormon scripture to be Christian.

Romney also alluded to abortion and the recent controversy of whether religious institutions should offer birth control in their health coverage, which is seen by evangelicals as an issue of religious freedom. And, in a nod to the Republican rival favoured by many Christian conservatives, Romney mentioned Rick Santorum, saying that Santorum stressed that “culture matters”, that marriage, family and work determine success in life.

“What you believe, what you value, how you live, matters,” Romney said. His speech was also notable for its overt religiosity, a tone that he had resisted, even during the Republican primaries when conservatives Christians were questioning his faith.

“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 said.

“Our relationship with our maker, however, depends on none of that. It is entirely in our control, for he is always at the door, and knocks for us. Our worldly successes cannot be guaranteed, but our ability to achieve spiritual success is entirely up to us, thanks to the grace of God. The best advice I know is to give those worldly things your best but never your all – reserve the ultimate hope for the only one who can grant it.”

Republican politicians seeking evangelical votes often come to Liberty University. John McCain gave a speech there in 2006, in what came to be seen as penance for calling Falwell and Pat Roberts “agents of intolerance”. His speech that year stuck to a defence of the Iraq war.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser, said in a conference call on Friday that his address would not be political in tone, but more of a graduation speech. While Romney offered the traditional advice to graduates, his speech was clearly meant to reach out to a bigger audience, the evangelical voters who have doubted Romney’s faith and understanding of their cause since 2004, when he first ran for president.

Judging from Christian conservative leaders, the speech seemed to have hit its mark.

“I thought it was a really good speech,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who had backed Santorum. “He hit on the religious freedom aspect, again recognising the shared values while acknowledging the theological differences he has with them. I think he made very clear what marriage is, and in the context of his speech he spoke about the importance of marriage and the family, even giving a hat tip to Senator Santorum. I don’t think I could have improved upon the speech.”

Gary L Bauer, the president of a Christian advocacy group called American Values, who had strongly pushed for Santorum, said this speech would help assuage the concerns of Christian evangelicals.

“I thought it was a home run, and I think so will most values voters,” he said. “He also clearly stood for the sanctity of life, clearly stood for the traditional definition of marriage and, I think importantly, encouraged the students to be bold and stand for those kinds of values, too. I think it’s going to be hard for critics to find much in this to criticise.”

Despite concerns about Romney’s faith, surveys suggest that evangelicals are beginning to rally behind his candidacy. In the latest New York Times/CBS News national telephone poll, conducted last month, 59 per cent of evangelical voters said they would vote for Romney if the election were held today, and among white evangelicals, that number was 72 per cent.

Before his speech, some Liberty students, expressing distrust of Romney’s Mormon faith, were upset at his selection as the commencement speaker. The student newspaper, The Liberty Champion, offered pro and con commentary on its editorial page, arguing in the “con” column that, “Choosing Romney to speak continues a dangerous and unethical trend”.

Those concerns seemed to have dissipated yesterday, with the crowd of 6,000 graduates and 30,000 friends and family members reacting warmly.

– (New York Times service)