LYNCHBURG, Va. - Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney reached out to evangelicals in a commencement speech at Liberty University Saturday that focused largely on the importance of faith and spirituality, without mentioning the details of his own religion.
The speech, the most religion-centered address he has given this cycle, was to one of the largest Christian universities in the country. It allowed Romney to make a direct appeal to evangelicals, a key part of the Republican base that overwhelmingly supported his opponents during the Republican primary because of doubts about of his conservative credentials and his Mormon faith.
Romney did not mention his faith by name, but spoke of Christianity and its values in broader terms as well as the importance of family.
"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 told the estimated 35,000 people gathered inside Liberty University's football stadium. "Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."
He also spoke of the importance of protecting religious freedom, saying that it "opens a door for Americans that is closed to too many others around the world. But whether we walk through that door, and what we do with our lives after we do, is up to us."
The speech was peppered with references to Christian leaders, including his onetime rival former Sen. Rick Santorum, Chuck Colson and Liberty's late founder Jerry Falwell, a conservative televangelist.
Although the address largely stayed away from overtly political issues, Romney did take a moment to reiterate his opposition to same sex marriage - a line that drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.
While his speech did not include mention of his Mormon faith, the fact that it was at least initially an issue in the campus community was evident in Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.'s introduction of Romney.
Falwell reminded listeners that the university does not endorse candidates but that the Bible teaches to be "good citizens."
"My father often preached that Christians should vote for the candidate whose positions on the political issues are most closely aligned with their own, not the candidate who shares his or her faith or thelogy," Falwell Jr. said. "We are, after all, electing a commander in chief, not a pastor or religious leader, he would often say."
Initial backlash over Romney's selection as speaker last month among some students prompted Falwell Jr. to weigh in and explain the policies "regarding the doctrinal beliefs of graduation speakers" in a recent e-mail to students.
Liberty University downplayed complaints about the choice as commencement speaker and said the letter was issued to student in the face of "perceived negative reactions that were fueled by the media."
However, Mormonism is referred to as one of the "major cults" in a graduate level theology course at Liberty, according to a report by Buzzfeed.com.
But Romney wasn't the only one extending a hand to their community.
Mark DeMoss, a Liberty alumnus and Romney supporter, who spoke before Romney at the ceremony, announced the university would be given the chair he was sitting in on the stage embossed with the Liberty University seal, to symbolically show "there's always room for (him) at (their) table."
Romney made a similar gesture after he met with evangelical leaders during his first campaign for president.
Asked during a conference call Friday with reporters whether Romney would use the venue to explain his Mormon beliefs - as he did in 2007 at Texas A&M University - a senior adviser said the speech at Liberty was "not a speech about Mormonism per se."
By Jackie Kucinich, USA TODAY