Liberty alumnus Mark DeMoss, a longtime senior adviser to Romney on religious issues, sought to validate Romney’s Christianity with an introduction. DeMoss said that although he might not agree with Romney on everything, “I trust his values, for I am convinced they mirror my own.”
DeMoss recalled bringing Falwell and other religious leaders to meet Romney in Massachusetts in 2006, after which Romney sent Falwell a chair with a seal that said, “There’s always room for you at my table.” The founder’s son and school chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., sat on the chair during the commencement. And the school presented Romney with a chair of his own, saying, “There’s always a seat for you at our table.”
Six years ago, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) made a similar pilgrimage to Liberty to build ties with Christian conservatives on his way to winning the 2008 GOP nomination. McCain had once referred to Falwell and other evangelical leaders as “agents of intolerance.”
For weeks, Romney’s advisers deliberated over how much the candidate should delve into strongly debated social issues or discuss his Mormonism at Liberty, which would make up the largest audience of his 2012 campaign. Ultimately, advisers said, Romney did not feel compelled to expound on his personal faith because he had already delivered a major speech on his Mormonism in December 2007, during his first presidential run.
“This isn’t a speech about Mormonism,” senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters before the address.
Although he never uttered the word “Mormon,” Romney did make a single oblique reference to his religion.
“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.”
Romney’s Mormon faith is a sensitive subject on campus at Liberty, where each class opens with biblical devotionals and the curriculum refers to Mormonism as conflicting with the school’s Christian theology.
After administrators announced last month that Romney would be the commencement speaker, some students objected online and in the student newspaper, prompting Falwell Jr. to remind them that the school has invited non-evangelical speakers in past commencements, including conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who is also Mormon.
Some conservatives in attendance here who had supported Romney’s chief GOP rival, former senator Rick Santorum, said they had grown comfortable with Romney. They said he could appeal to evangelicals without delivering a partisan call to arms to the movement.
“You’re at a crowd where you already know we agree on social issues, so he doesn’t need to push that and spend time on that,” said John Campbell from Fayetteville, N.C., who is now supporting Romney. “We’re at Liberty, so we know where you stand if you come here. This school certainly has never run from its beliefs.”
But others in the crowd, which began assembling in the stadium at dawn, more than four hours before Romney spoke, said they were hoping to hear the candidate offer a strong defense of social conservatism — especially after Obama’s interview on same-sex marriage.
“We want God to bless our country, and I think we need to be moral,” said Lew Ann Knouse, 51, an office administrator from Altoona, Pa. “I’m against gay marriage, and people want to know Mitt Romney’s stand. He should let us know his social stands because if he doesn’t agree with the things I think are important, I’m not going to vote for him.”
Although Romney’s address was not billed as a political speech, he could not escape the intensifying general election campaign. A small airplane rented by liberal group MoveOn.org flew over Liberty’s stadium with a banner that read: “GOP=Higher School Debt.”
Staff writer Krissah Thompson contributed to this report.