After giving a nod to the legalese prohibiting a non-profit organization from endorsing a political candidate, Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. today introduced commencement key-note speaker Gov. Mitt Romney as "the next president of the United States."
"We are, after all, electing a commander in chief not a pastor or religious leader," the chancellor said, harkening back to an oft-quoted remark made by his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the school's founder.
And without mentioning the Mormon religion by name, Romney and those introducing him, spoke of shared values and trust between Mormons and Christians. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, greeted with a standing ovation, told Liberty University's 39th graduating class that despite their differences, people of both faiths can unite in their common commitment to family, faith, work and service.
"People of different faiths like yours and mine sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose with our so many differences in creed and theology," Romney told the 6,000 graduates present. "Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation, stemming from a common world view." Liberty's class of 2012 is the largest in the school's history, with slightly more than 14,000 graduates, 60 percent of whom received their degrees after completing online courses.
In introducing Romney, Falwell said the candidate's participation in the commencement should not be construed as an endorsement of his presidential aspirations.
"However, the Bible teaches that Christians should be good citizens" said Falwell, who once served as Liberty's general counsel. "And I believe that includes the obligation to vote. 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 for the candidate who shares his or her faith or theology."
The theme of shared values began with another introduction by Mark DeMoss, Liberty University Board of Trustees executive director, and long-time Romney supporter. "It seems some people want a president they will agree with on everything. I suspect I won't agree with Mitt Romney on everything. But I will tell you this - I trust him. I trust him to do the right thing. Finally I trust his values for I am convinced they mirror my own."
Romney spoke to those values as he addressed issues at the forefront of the presidential campaign.
"Culture-what you believe, what you value, how you live-matters," he said.
He drew himself in stark contrast to President Barack Obama, who this week endorsed same-sex marriage. The crowd cheered and gave Romney a standing ovation when he said, "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
Like others getting their degrees this year, Liberty's graduating class enters a stagnant job market with an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent. But Romney urged them not to be discouraged. The job climate can change, he said, if the country takes a different course of action.
Romney told the graduates of the nation's largest Christian university that the world will not always appreciate the scriptural values taught at Liberty and demonstrated by its students and alumni: "The protection of religious freedom has also become a matter of debate. The free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of being blessed with."
But Judeo-Christian traditions have formed the foundation of American's "rise to global leadership," he said. And the foundation of a civil society is the preeminence of family, he added.
Romney's Mormon faith was called into question during his 2008 bid for the Republican Presidential nomination. DeMoss recalled a meeting he hosted during that campaign to introduce Romney to evangelical leaders. Among them was Jerry Falwell Sr., who died seven months following the introduction.
Theological differences between evangelicals and Mormons continues to cause a political divide between Republican voters. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convection's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission said, "I think there is a divide. How severe it is depends on the evangelical".
Land believes the commonalities between the two religions-pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-Israel positions-will draw the majority of evangelicals to support Romney on Nov. 6. He estimates between 10 percent and 15 percent of evangelicals will sit out the election.
Land said the late Falwell would be disappointed to find Christians so resolute. He said his friend stood by the "Buckley Doctrine" named for the late William F. Buckley who said, "I'm for the most conservative man who can get elected."
That conviction led Falwell to endorse George H.W. Bush against pastor Pat Robertson because Bush could get elected and Robertson could not, Land recalled Falwell explaining.
Though he has not specifically addressed the issue in his current campaign, Romney spoke frankly in Dec. 2007 during a speech at the George W. Bush Library at Texas A&M, in College Station, Tex. He framed his address in the manner of candidate John Kennedy, who had to defend his presidential intentions against accusations that, as a Catholic, his allegiance was to Rome and not America.
Romney echoed that speech during today's commencement. In 2007 Romney said "It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter-on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course."