“Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” he told cheering, standing graduates of Lynchburg, Virginia-based Liberty University, a regular campaign stop for Republican presidential candidates since President Ronald Reagan visited it a month before Election Day in 1980.
The topic has dominated the political conversation following President Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage during a May 9 ABC News interview. Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, is working to reconcile with evangelical voters, who backed his opponents during his party’s four-month primary contest and remain skeptical of his Mormon faith and his record on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
At least one Liberty class -- Theology 678 -- Western and New Religions -- describes Mormonism as a “major cult” in the course catalog, and some students protested Romney’s selection as the commencement speaker on Facebook pages and on blogs.
Romney made only oblique reference to his religion.
Calling for Unity
“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,” the former Massachusetts governor told a stadium packed with 35,000 faculty, graduates and their families. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common world view.”
In his most expansive campaign remarks on the issues on faith and personal values, Romney, 65, played down differences in speaking at the school founded by the late televangelist, the Reverend Jerry Falwell. He cited the lives and sayings of a diverse collection of Christian leaders, including evangelical pastor Billy Graham, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Roman Catholic leader Pope John Paul II, and former primary opponent Rick Santorum, a favorite of born-again Christian Republicans who endorsed Romney in a May 7 e-mail to supporters.
“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. “Culture -- what you believe, what you value, how you live -- matters,” he said.
Those values, he warned, can spark “the censure of the world” and become topics of political debate. “So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage.”
Family and Faith
Romney senior strategist Eric Fehrnstrom said the speech was “not a policy speech” and was meant to focus on the universal themes of family and faith.
Romney supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and says benefits for same-sex couples should be determined by individual states.
Aides and supporters are divided over how strongly to highlight that position. Senior adviser Ed Gillespie has said the campaign should make the issue of gay rights “a bright-line difference in this campaign,” as a way to energize grassroots Republicans and independent voters in swing states -- such as Virginia and North Carolina -- who oppose gay marriage.
Talking Points Memo
Republican strategist Jan van Lohuizen on May 11 distributed a talking points memo to elected officials urging a less strident position given the growing public support for same-sex marriage
“Support for same-sex marriage has been growing and in the last few years support has grown at an accelerated rate with no sign of slowing down,” van Lohuizen wrote. He recommended candidates couch the issue one of individual liberty and equal rights.
Other party strategists prefer that Romney stick to an economic message, which voters rank as their top concern and senior aides say gives the former businessman a natural advantage.
“The reason that the governor got into the race for president is because of the dismal state of the economy,” Fehrnstrom told reporters on a conference call yesterday. “Jobs and the economy is the message that carried him through the primaries. It’s what he takes with him into the general election, and it is why he’s going to win in November.”
Still, turnout among evangelical voters will be crucial for Romney to gain an advantage at the polls in November.
“I guess I’ll vote for Romney,” said Regina Silva, a mother of a graduate from Rural Retreat, Virginia. “He’s the only one left but I’m just afraid he’s not conservative enough on social issues.”
Mark DeMoss, a Liberty graduate and campaign aide, introduced Romney’s address with a speech recounting a lunch the former Massachusetts governor hosted at his Boston home when he was preparing his first bid for president in 2006.
After the meal, Romney sent each leader a wood chair inscribed with the state logo. On the back was a plaque that read: “There’s always room for you at my table.”
“I trust him,” said DeMoss, the son of a successful evangelical businessman whose name adorns a columned building on the campus. “I trust his values for I am convinced they mirror my own.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Lynchburg, Virginia at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com