LYNCHBURG, Va. — Mitt Romney's Mormon faith has shaped his life, but he barely mentioned it as he spoke to graduates at an evangelical Christian university Saturday.
And he barely touched on hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage, instead offering a broad-based defense of values like family and hard work.
"Culture — what you believe, what you value, how you live — matters," Romney told graduates gathered in the football stadium on Liberty University's campus in the Virginia mountains. "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 pre-eminence of the family."
Instead of a red-meat conservative policy speech, Romney discussed his own family and offered a defense of Christianity, saying that "there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action." Still, he was inclusive: "Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life," Romney said.
He had one sustained applause line in a 20-minute speech delivered days after President Barack Obama historically embraced gay marriage. "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman," Romney said to a cheering crowd of students who have to follow a strict code of conduct that considers sex out of wedlock and homosexuality to be sins.
The late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971 to be for evangelical Christians "what Notre Dame is to young Catholics and Brigham Young is to young Mormons," as his son, university Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., said on commencement day. It's become a destination for Republican politicians looking to speak to the religious right, and Romney's campaign team — planning the speech long before gay marriage became a central issue — viewed it as an opportunity to address the kind of socially conservative audience that had been wary of him during the prolonged GOP primary fight.
For Romney, the challenge is twofold. His past policy positions, including support for abortion rights, don't sit well. But his personal faith is also an issue because many evangelicals don't consider Mormons to be fellow Christians. Evangelicals are a critical segment of the GOP base; many of those voters backed his GOP rivals in the prolonged primary.
When he locks in the Republican presidential nomination, Romney will make history as the first Mormon nominee from a major party.