LYNCHBURG, Va. – Presidential candidate Mitt Romney traveled to Liberty University’s commencement on Saturday to woo evangelicals offering hope under his leadership and addressed concerns about his Mormon faith. His overtly religious speech was a home run for values voters.
Evangelicals are a significant percentage of the electorate and the most reliable Republican voting bloc. George W. Bush received 78 percent of the evangelical vote in 2004, John McCain won 74 percent in 2008 but evangelicals were cold to Romney during the 2012 primaries. Therefore, the Romney campaign went to Liberty over the weekend hoping to garner more evangelical support in preparation for the bruising campaign ahead.
Romney’s 20-minute commencement speech at the world’s largest Christian university, founded 41 years ago by evangelical leader Dr. Jerry Falwell, was a forceful endorsement of America’s Judeo-Christian values and included his commitment to fix our troubled economy if elected.
“If we take the right course, we will see a resurgence in the American economy,” Romney told the over 6,000 job-seeking graduates seated in the university’s football stadium filled with 34,000 family members and friends. He promised that under his leadership America will “open new doors of opportunity” that “will surprise the world.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee spoke mostly about faith and values to the packed stadium. He cited Harvard historian David Landes who said civilizations rise and fall based on culture which “makes all the difference.” Then Romney outlined his views about our troubled culture without mentioning President Barack Obama’s many anti-Judeo-Christian policies.
Romney said the tenets of traditional American culture include personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service and the pre-eminence of the family. He referenced a Brookings Institution study to illustrate the importance of these tenets in the culture, an idea borrowed from presidential opponent former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
The study, according to Romney, found “those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2 percent.” But when those things are absent, “76 percent will be poor.” Romney concluded, “Culture matters.”
The former governor said cultural issues are openly debated today such as “the enduring institution of marriage” which he defined as “a relationship between one man and one woman.” That comment drew a standing ovation from the Christian audience and comes days after Obama endorsed homosexual marriage.
Romney emphasized the importance of parenting over career priorities by citing the example of his father, George Romney, a former CEO, a governor, and member of the president’s cabinet. Romney senior said his greatest accomplishment was “Raising our four kids” and then Mitt Romney told the Liberty audience “Ann [his wife] and I feel the same way about our family.” The Romneys have five grown sons.
Faith is under attack in our culture, another Romney theme. “Your values will not always be the object of public admiration” but “Christianity is not the faith of the complacent,” the former governor observed. He cited examples of heroic Christians like Charles Wesley, the 18th century theologian, and William Wilberforce, the British politician who led the movement to abolish the slave trade.
Romney said like these men the graduates must show “the relentless and powerful influence of the message of Jesus Christ.” But “religious freedom has also become a matter of debate” in our culture even though Christian conscience calls for justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and “mercy for the child waiting to be born.”
Romney encouraged the graduates to “live a purpose driven life,” possibly a reference to Dr. Rick Warren’s popular book by the same title. He told them “our worldly successes cannot be guaranteed, but our ability to achieve spiritual success is entirely up to us.” He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who chose the spiritual path: “I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute.”
Romney concluded his commencement address by appealing to evangelicals to understand “we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology,” a clear reference to the doctrinal differences between evangelicals and Mormons, Romney’s faith. Though Romney never explicitly mentioned his Mormon faith he argued that “surely the answer is that we can meet in service.”
The former governor persuasively argued “in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview” that we can work together. Then Romney said “the call to service is one of the fundamental elements of our national character.” Romney will make history as the first Mormon presidential nominee if tapped by the Republican Party this August in Tampa, Florida.
Romney rallied Liberty’s 39th commencement by concluding “In all of these things – faith, family, work, and service – the choices we make as Americans are, in other places, not choices at all.” Then he said, “All the more reason to be grateful, this and every day, that we live in America.”
The Liberty crowd expressed its approval with repeated applause and standing ovations. This writer spoke with many in the audience after the commencement ceremony and found them positive about Romney which anecdotally confirms the results of a new survey that found evangelical Christians flocking to Romney.
Romney has the support of 68 percent of white evangelical voters compared to just 19 percent who favor Obama, according to a May 2-6 PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey. Romney’s favorability among white evangelicals increased 27 percent from a previous poll in October 2011.
Gov. Mitt Romney’s speech at Liberty University will help him among evangelicals. But that community is already heavily on his team and not because they are necessarily enthusiastic about his candidacy but because they are opposed to President Obama’s record on moral issues like abortion and homosexual marriage and the fact that he is the most intensely anti-Christian president in America’s history.