By Ginger Gibson
Evangelical leaders praised Mitt Romney’s speech Saturday at Liberty University, saying the Mormon candidate was right to acknowledge his religious differences with other Christian voters.
“It was an acknowledgment that the issues that social conservatives and evangelicals care about are important issues to Gov. Romney and as he sees them [as] part of a successful economic platform for the country,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
Perkins added that there wasn’t anything the presumptive GOP presidential nominee — whom many evangelical voters regarded with skepticism during the primary while backing Rick Santorum — should have done differently. And he pointed to the huge opportunity created for Romney by President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage this week. (Romney opposes gay marriage.)
“I think he touched on the key issues that are important to social conservatives. He mentioned Rick Santorum and Rick’s emphasis and the need to have the family and the ties to economic success.”
Regarding Romney’s acknowledgement that Mormonism differs from other Christian faiths in certain ways, Perkins said the candidate was correct to tackle the issue.
“That was what he needed to do, was to acknowledge that there are theological differences between him and evangelicals,” Perkins said.
Saturday’s commencement speech at the world’s largest Christian university showcased a rare public recognition from Romney of his own religion. He has preferred to talk about jobs and the economy and leave his Mormon faith untouched. Deeply religious voters — most of whom are evangelical — backed Santorum in large numbers during the primary and Romney is looking for a way to bring them on board for the general election.
In the speech, Romney said that while he might not share the listeners’ religion, the GOP standard-bearer shares their values on core things such as gay marriage.
“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,” he said.
Romney also directly addressed the issue of same-sex marriage and received a standing ovation in response.
“Culture matters,” Romney said. “As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”
Romney also invoked Santorum and Chuck Colson, an important evangelical leader, as representative of Christian values.
“The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Sen. Rick Santorum brought to my attention,” Romney explained in talking about the importance of family.
The speech’s single allusion to Romney’s religious differences may be the last time voters hear Romney voluntarily talk about Mormonism, its place in the Christian faith and how it affects the candidate as a leader.
Heading into the fall, Romney’s campaign says there are no specific plans for the Republican to deliver an address tackling his religious faith — which is controversial, though much less so than previously, among some voters — in a moment that would be akin to Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race or John F. Kennedy’s remarks about Catholicism.
The campaign points out that Romney addressed his Mormon faith in a 2007 speech, and a senior campaign adviser said he has no plan to revisit the issue.
“It would be hard to improve on the speech he already gave on the subject of faith,” a senior adviser said.
Although he didn’t personally watch the speech, Richard Land — a Tennessee pastor who is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — said Romney is taking the right steps to win over evangelicals.
“If I were him, that’s exactly what I would have said,” Land said. “I would have acknowledged the difference in theology and not try to win the argument that we all believe in the same God because we don’t.”
“We have many of the same values and a similar worldview when it comes to marriage and it comes to life and it comes to Israel,” Land added.
Land said Santorum voters aren’t averse to Romney and will rally behind Romney before November.
“You have to remember being pro-Santorum doesn’t necessarily mean you were anti-Romney,” Land said. “Rick Santorum is about as popular as anybody can be among evangelicals. Nobody is going to win a popularity contest against him.”
The timing of the speech was perfect for Romney, coming after Obama this week announced his support for same-sex marriage. There are increasing signs that social conservatives, deeply opposed to gay marriage, now have a reason to rally behind behind Romney’s candidacy.
Perkins said the gay marriage issue will help Romney in the fall.
“I think Barack Obama handed Mitt Romney a tremendous opportunity when he came out and said he endorses and supports same-sex marriage,” Perkins said. “It’s not just the issue of marriage, it’s everything else that’s associated with it. … I think the lines are becoming more bolder, more clearer.”
Democrats have said they don’t plan to make religion an issue in the fall campaign. They have struggled with Obama’s foes describing the president as a Muslim despite the fact that he is a Christian.
And Romney’s campaign appears happy to leave the entire issue of religion alone.
Romney’s Liberty address focused on the overarching themes of values.
“Your values will not always be the object of public admiration,” he warned the students. “In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Christianity is not the faith of the complacent, the comfortable or of the timid.”
Up until now, Romney has had a rocky relationship with evangelicals who were wary of his deep Mormon convictions and saw him as too liberal to be the GOP nominee.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, who backed Rick Perry during the primary, caused a flap when he described Mormonism as a “cult” and said Mormons were not part of the Christian faith.
During the primary, Romney was never able to win over evangelical voters, who instead turned to Santorum despite the fact that he is Catholic.
But while on the campaign trail he frequently talks about God and faith, Romney never breaches the differences between Mormonism and other Christian faiths.
Since becoming the presumptive nominee last month, the former governor has done little to bridge the gap between himself and evangelicals.
But with Obama’s gay-marriage support preceding him, Romney signaled that he understands the values of religious voters in his Saturday speech.
He talked about former Richard Nixon aide Colson leaving prison and deciding to lead a life of service and ministry.
“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,” Romney said.
He added: “His choice at that crossroads would make him, instead, a great man. 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.”
In conclusion, Romney argued that shared Christian values are a common cause to fight for and not something those outside of America all enjoy.
“In all of these things — faith, family, work and service — the choices we make as Americans are, in other places, not choices at all,” he said. “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.”
The strongest case of the day to support Romney might not have been made by the candidate himself, but by Mark DeMoss, a supporter and member of the Liberty Board of Trustees who introduced him.
DeMoss acknowledged that he and Romney might not always agree, joking that he’s been married for 24 years and doesn’t always agree with his wife.
“I suspect I won’t agree with Mitt Romney on everything,” DeMoss said.”But I will tell you this, I trust him, I trust him to do the right thing, the moral thing for this country. I trust his values because I am convinced they mirror my own.”
Even Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the Liberty founder and who now serves as chancellor of the school, provided a boost for Romney when he introduced him as “the next president of the United States.”
That was after Falwell stated emphatically that the speech shouldn’t be viewed as an endorsement by the school.