NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney acknowledged to a crowd at Liberty University's commencement that Mormonism and evangelicalism are different faiths, but he said people in both camps can work together on issues of "shared moral convictions."
Romney's invitation to speak at the evangelical university was controversial in some circles, mainly because of Romney's religion. Yet Romney's speech at Williams Stadium -- where the football team plays -- seemingly was well-received.
The values-laden speech May 12 touched on the issues of gay "marriage" and abortion, and Romney also listed a number of leaders admired by evangelicals: Chick-fil-A's Truett Cathy, author C.S. Lewis and evangelist Billy Graham, among others.
"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. 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 recounted a story Colson told about the days after Colson left prison: "He was assured by people of influence that, even with his prison record, a man with his connections and experience could still live very comfortably. They would make some calls, get Chuck situated and set him up once again as an important man. His choice at that crossroads would make him, instead, a great man."
The graduates, Romney said, will enter a world where Christian beliefs are not always embraced.
"Your values will not always be the object of public admiration," Romney said. "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. It demands and creates heroic souls like Wesley, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, John Paul II and Billy Graham. Each showed, in their own way, the relentless and powerful influence of the message of Jesus Christ. May that be your guide as well."
Romney said "central to America's rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life."
"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," Romney said. "The power of these values, this culture, is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Sen. Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a 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 -- what you believe, what you value, how you live -- matters."
Romney then briefly touched on the definition of marriage. His speech came three days after President Obama declared his support for gay "marriage."
"As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate from time to time. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman," he said to a standing ovation.
Religious liberty, Romney said, has "also become a matter of debate."
"It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of being blessed with," he said. "Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government.
"But from the beginning, this nation has trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action."
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., applauded Romney for acknowledging that Mormonism is different.
"It was a healthy and honest and I would say necessary thing for Gov. Romney to say that," Mohler said on his podcast May 14.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Romney hit the right notes for evangelicals.
"Mitt Romney picked up on the message that energized Rick Santorum's campaign: America's financial greatness is directly tied to moral and cultural wholeness," Perkins said. "Mitt Romney's address gives me a sense of hope that he will build on this message at a time when millions of voters are reeling from President Obama's endorsement for redefining marriage."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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