Megan Leach and Sarabeth Rudd agree on almost everything. They are both evangelical, in their 20s and law students at the conservative Liberty University. They vehemently oppose abortion rights and same-sex marriage, believing they are contrary to God’s word. Yet when presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney comes to their campus Saturday to speak before a crowd of 34,000, Leach will be there cheering him on and Rudd will stay home.
One woman is hoping she will see a conservative leader willing to take a stand on social issues. The other said her conscience won’t allow her to vote for a candidate who does not share her religious beliefs.
Across this bucolic campus, where every class opens with prayer and biblical devotionals, a healthy heap of skepticism will greet Romney, who will deliver a graduation address. The university was at the apex of evangelical political power amid the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s, and Romney’s reception here could signal how far the candidate has come in solidifying his position among evangelicals.
Republican strategists hope the renewed debate on social issues, in the wake of President Obama’s announcement Wednesday that he supports same-sex marriage, will galvanize conservative Christians behind Romney.
But Rudd thinks the former Massachusetts governor should never have been invited to speak at her college. There is nothing he could say to win her vote — other than that he has become an evangelical Christian and made Jesus his savior.
“People get so blinded by their party that they forget principle,” said Rudd, who is 25. “His theology goes against my faith. I’m not going to vote for him for that.”
Leach, 23, said she has not decided, however, whether she will vote for Romney. “I want to hear what he has to say,” she said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
She wants a fire-and-brimstone speech from Romney that inspires students to take a stand. Excerpts of Romney’s prepared remarks released Friday, however, indicate his message will be more subdued, focusing on the link between families and the economy, not hot-button issues.
In the GOP primaries, conservative Christians were among the Republicans least likely to support Romney. Although polls show some movement, several prominent evangelical leaders have raised concerns about his Mormon faith, saying it does not represent their own worldview. Liberty’s curriculum refers to Mormonism as conflicting with its own theology.
When administrators announced last month that Romney would speak at graduation, some students protested online and in the student newspaper, prompting school Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. to remind them that the school does not always invite evangelical speakers for commencement. (Prominent conservative media figure Glenn Beck, who is also Mormon, spoke at graduation services in 2010.)
The stakes are high for Romney. David Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network founded by Pat Robertson, said the speech could be a “serious turning point in Romney’s relationship with evangelicals.”
In the dimly lighted student center, outfitted with billiard tables and video game consoles, several undergraduates said they weren’t thrilled that Romney was coming, but that they were curious.
“I want to know who he is,” said business major David McMahon, 20. “We already know what he says he stands for. Who is he personally?”
McMahon has heard the narrative that Romney is a flip-flopper, and he is looking for some assurance that won’t happen if Romney is elected. “What would shock and disappoint me is if Romney comes at us and says, ‘I’m for traditional values,’ and then, after he’s elected, doesn’t stand up for it,” he said.
His friend, Krystal Heard, 22, said she wants to know Romney’s “economic policy and how it affects minority groups. . . . He’s very detached from the low-income community.”
Back home in Louisiana, where she was raised by a single mother, people thought it strange that she did not vote for Obama in 2008. “It really hurt me to vote against him,” said Heard, who is black and admires the history Obama made. “I pray for President Obama that he is guided by the Holy Spirit.”
Right now, she is undecided, but Romney’s speech could sway her. “Neither one of them really line up with our moral beliefs,” she said. “This will be a rough decision.”
On Super Tuesday, the law students, Leach and Rudd, supported Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who won Lynchburg in the Virginia primary. Rudd still backs Paul, who has not yet dropped out of the GOP race. If Paul is not on the ballot come November, Rudd may vote for a third-party candidate. Leach is more open to Romney’s candidacy.
Jason Campbell, who graduated from Liberty seven years ago and was back on campus Thursday, is hoping Romney — despite his religious beliefs — can get evangelicals fired up for 2012.
“This is still the Moral Majority,” he said. “It’s right here.”