Mitt Romney’s commencement speech at Liberty University was notable for many reasons. For those expecting or rooting for him to take the bait and elevate the gay-marriage issue to a major campaign theme, he disappointed. He had a single line: “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” He is not going to be defined by his position on that issue nor be complicit in distracting the electorate from the central themes of the campaign. But the rest of the speech is what was significant.

The speech, for one thing, was far more important insofar as it largely put to rest the liberal dream that religious denominational differences might suppress social conservatives’ turnout for Romney. Romney spoke in the language of religious unity and civic values, in one of his best speeches to date. He told the students:

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self and, at the foundation, the preeminence of the family.

The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For 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, if those things are absent, 76 percent will be poor. Culture matters. . . . 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. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. The best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God’s love into every life — people like the late Chuck Colson.

This is the sort of bond of religious people across sectarian lines about which Sen. Joe Lieberman (I- Conn.) has spoken and written. Romney’s language is comforting to Christian conservatives and off-putting only to the sliver of religion-hostile voters. (“In all of these things — faith, family, work and service — the choices we make as Americans are, in other places, not choices at all. For so many on this earth, life is filled with orders, not options, right down to where they live, the work they do and how many children the state will permit them to have. All the more reason to be grateful, this and every day, that we live in America, where the talents God gave us may be used in freedom.”)

Romney’s speech also illustrated just how misguided (dishonest, some may say) is the president’s accusation that the GOP is all about hyper-individualism that leaves the needy on their own. To the contrary, “Life of Julia,” the left’s defense of the welfare state, portrays an atomized, unmarried single woman. Her only hope is therefore to look to the state to dole out cash, loans, etc. The world Romney paints is one in which the individual is never alone or ignored, but is embraced by family, friends and even complete strangers (acting out of religious devotion) who can cushion life’s blows, mentor and, yes, love those in need.

As Romney put it, “ The call to service is one of the fundamental elements of our national character. It has motivated every great movement of conscience that this hopeful, fair-minded country of ours has ever seen. Sometimes, as Dr. Viktor Frankl observed in a book for the ages, it is not a matter of what we are asking of life, but rather what life is asking of us. How often the answer to our own troubles is to help others with theirs.”

I suspect the reason the speech rang true is that it was an honest reflection of Romney’s life and beliefs. People in search of the real Romney can learn a lot from this speech and from a biography by two Boston Globe reporters, quoted by Paul Mirengoff of the Powerline blog:

One Saturday, Grant Bennett got up on a ladder outside his two-story [house] intent on dislodging a hornets’ nest, which had formed between an air-conditioning unit and a second floor window. . . .The hornets went right at him, and he fell off the ladder, breaking his foot. . . .Romney learned what had happened and went over that afternoon to see if there was anything he could do. He and Bennett chatted for a few minutes, and then Romney left.

About nine thirty that Sunday night, Romney reappeared. Only this time, it was dark out. Romney was in jeans and a polo shirt instead of his suit, and he was carrying a bucket, a piece of hose, and a couple of screwdrivers. . . .

Everyone who knows Romney in the church community seems to have a story like this, about him and his family pitching in to help in ways big and small. They took chicken and asparagus soup to sick parishioners. They invited unsettled Mormon transplants in their home for lasagna.

Helen Claire Stevens and her husband once loaned a friend from church a six-figure sum and weren’t getting paid back. Suddenly, they couldn’t pay their daughter’s Harvard College tuition. Romney, who was [a local Mormon] leader at the time, not only worked closely with the Stevens family and the loan recipient to try to resolve the problem, he offered to give Stevens and her husband money and tried to help her find a job. . . .

On Super Bowl Sunday 1989, Douglas Anderson was at home in Belmont with his four children when a fire broke out. The blaze spread quickly, and all Anderson could think of was racing his family to safety. “There was no thought in my mind other than ‘Get my kids out,’ ” he said. “I was not thinking about saving anything.” He doesn’t remember when Romney, who lived nearby, showed up. But he got there quickly. Immediately, Romney organized the gathered neighbors, and they began dashing into the house to rescue what could: a desk, couches, books. . . . “They saved some important things for us, and Mitt was the general in charge of that.” This went on until firefighters ordered them to stop. “Literally,” Anderson said, “they were finally kicked out by the firemen as they were bringing hoses and stuff.” . . .

Romney’s acts of charity extended beyond just the church community. After his friend and neighbor Joseph O’Donnell lost a son, Joey, to cystic fibrosis . . .Romney helped lead a community effort to build Joey’s park, a playground. . .in Belmont. “There he was with a hammer in his belt, the Mitt nobody sees,” O’Donnell said.

Romney’s message at Liberty University was simple: What matters is what you do when no one (other than God) is looking and when there is no material reward. Maybe it was a compelling message because it was spoken by someone who walks the walk. In a cynical age with everyone trying to extract nuggets of insight from childhood-old incidents, sometimes the key to understanding a public figure is in plain sight.