It is a good thing that my colleague Colbert King has read Mitt Romney’s Liberty University commencement address three times, but he might want to read my column on the speech once again. I began by mocking the Romney campaign’s choice of setting, precisely because Liberty’s founder, Jerry Falwell, accumulated so much “culture war baggage.” King’s unpacking of that baggage in his column today confirms my point.
But I further argued that Romney’s speech was better than its setting. It made a brief but sophisticated argument about the role of culture in the success of civilizations (referencing the work of Harvard historian David Landes) and the role of traditional institutions in the shaping of culture. I’m not sure why that message would be out of place at Howard or Harvard or anywhere else. And Romney’s approach was carefully inclusive: pointing out that the aspiration of a “purpose-driven life” is shared by “men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all.” At Falwell’s university, Romney did not reflect Falwell’s tone.
King found the themes of the speech (service, family, etc.) predictable – as though college commencement speeches are often delivered on astrophysics or ornithology. I happen to like the reassuring rituals of the commencement address. And Romney performed them well.
Consider this passage:
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. And each of them is subject to the vagaries and serendipities of life. Our relationship with our Maker, however, depends on none of this. It is entirely in our control, for He is always at the door, and knocks for us.
The message is familiar. As Romney later admits, “many a preacher has advised the same.” But it is hard to imagine a point more important to understand at the beginning of a career. And Romney’s speech took pains to express a familiar sentiment in fresh language. It is not inconceivable that a member of the audience – in some future moment of personal success or crisis – will remember those words: “He is always at the door, and knocks for us.”
But King’s objection is not primarily literary but ideological. Romney’s offense is addressing a message to a “narrow” audience of evangelicals, who need to be informed that they are no longer a cultural majority.
They have known this, of course, since the 1920s, when Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken and others made it pretty clear. But evangelicals retain their rights as citizens and voters, which makes it understandable (and democratically appropriate) that Romney should appeal to them. Evangelicals, by the way, are not predominantly upper class. They are more likely to view themselves as besieged group than as part of a ruling elite. And they have a famously uneasy relationship with Mormonism. Which makes it a stretch to say that an upper class, Mormon member of the ruling elite was pandering to an evangelical audience that looks “pretty much like him.” I imagine the crowd was conscious of a few differences.
All that said, I agree with King that Romney needs to craft a general election message that extends beyond traditional conservative constituencies. In a recent column, I argued he should provide:
some reassurance that Republicans give a damn about someone other than Republican primary voters. It is not a high bar. But Romney needs to start somewhere — to pick an issue of justice and equity that he cares about deeply. It could be lowering an unemployment rate that is now more than 40 percent among African American teenagers. Or the improvement of high school dropout factories attended by 38 percent of black students and 33 percent of Latino students in America…. A successful presidential candidate must have a compelling economic message. But he must also be able to stand before the nation and say: ‘I will serve all American citizens, whether they support me or not. My conscience, my faith, my view of America requires it. It hurts us all when any are hopeless.’
That was not Romney’s main message at Liberty. But he did set out a social ideal of “justice for the persecuted,” “compassion for the needy and the sick” and “mercy for the child waiting to be born.” Now Romney should speak to an ideologically unexpected audience and fill out the elevated goals of his commencement address – justice, compassion and mercy – in the realm of policy.