Mitt Romney, on the cusp of making history as the first Mormon to win a major party’s nomination for president, will deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, a bastion of evangelical Christians founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Romney’s address, scheduled for May 12, comes as the former Massachusetts governor is laboring to consolidate the conservative base as he moves from a bruising and divisive primary campaign into a general election against President Obama.
This will be Romney’s first visit to Liberty’s campus in Lynchburg, Va. Several other candidates addressed students there last year, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Liberty is the alma mater of one of Romney’s senior advisers, Mark DeMoss, who has been helping the candidate build bridges to the evangelical community. And Brett O’Donnell, who helped Romney prepare for two critical Florida debates in January, was for many years coach of Liberty’s award-winning debate team and a Falwell acolyte.
In the primaries, Romney struggled to win over evangelicals voters, who exit polls showed supported rival Rick Santorum by wide margins.
With Romney the presumptive GOP nominee, new data show Romney holding a huge edge over President Obama among white evangelicals (73 to 20 percent).
Romney has not addressed any Christian colleges or church groups this campaign, although he courted evangelical voters more overtly during his 2008 run for president. In 2007, Romney delivered the commencement address at Regent University, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
In announcing Romney’s visit on Thursday, Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. likened Romney’s visit to those of past Republican presidents.
“We are delighted that Governor Romney will join us to celebrate Commencement with Liberty’s 2012 graduates,” he said in a statement. “This will be a historic event for Liberty University reminiscent of the visits of Governor, and then presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan to Liberty’s campus in 1980 and of President George H.W. Bush who spoke at Liberty’s 1990 Commencement ceremony.”
Writer Michael Sean Winters, who recently came out with an autobiography of Falwell, noted a few weeks ago that the late leader most likely foresaw all this. In an effort to build what became the Moral Majority, Falwell shifted his focus from the doctrinal differences that have divided Protestants and Catholics and Mormons to broad social issues they could agree on: abortion, marriage and secularism.
“The doctrinal differences between fundamentalists and Mormons are great indeed, but Falwell’s decision to make Moral Majority a political, not a denominational, entity paved the way for the kind of interdenominational collaboration Romney will need if he hopes to win the nomination and the presidency. Indeed, if anything, Romney’s Mormonism may be a help, not a hindrance,” Winters wrote.
The university estimated that 14,000 students will graduate at the ceremony, with some 34,000 guests in attendance.
This post has been updated since it was first published.