LYNCHBURG, Va. – Mitt Romney, needing badly to stir momentum among skeptical evangelical Christians vital to his presidential hopes, told a polite audience Saturday at Liberty University, an influential Christian school, that he shares and deeply respects their values.
“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,” said Romney, whose Mormon religion has been criticized in some evangelical circles.
“Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
Romney spoke at the school’s commencement and got his most enthusiastic response when he reiterated his view that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” President Barack Obama earlier in the week said he supported same-sex marriage, a sure-fire way to galvanize evangelicals and other social conservatives to work against his re-election.
Romney seized the chance to show he was behind them, as his remark got one of the day’s three standing ovations; the others, consisting of brief, subdued applause, came at the start and end of his talk.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee needs this crowd, particularly in this pivotal state. Throughout the primary and caucus season, he did poorly among evangelical Christian voters like those who support and attend this school, which bills itself as “training champions for Christ since 1971.”
It was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, and emerged as a political force during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential run. Falwell’s son Jerry Jr. is now the president and chancellor.
Romney had three goals Saturday: to assure everyone present that he shares the audience’s values, that he’s lived a good moral life, and that he is running for president to heal the ailing economy.
“Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life,” he said.
Romney dwelled heavily on his own family. “I have never once regretted missing any experience or opportunity in business in order to be with my wife and five sons,” he said in a solemn tone.
“In this life, of course, the commitments that come closest to forever are those of family. Maybe you’ve heard that (wife) Ann and I have a pretty large family, and I’m sure glad I like having grandchildren because every time I turn around there’s more of them.”
Romney, who’s been married 43 years, has 18 grandchildren.
Though the festive crowd was generally supportive, many continued to express reservations about Romney.
Last month, the Liberty Champion, the student newspaper, wrote in a commentary, “Mitt Romney was announced as Liberty’s 39th commencement speaker, great – but he is a Mormon.”