Mitt Romney never once used the word "Mormon" in his commencement address at Liberty University this weekend, but he sure didn't duck the question.
Political reporters took his comments that "marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman" as as a dig at President Obama, who has just endorsed the ideal of gay marriage and been called our "First Gay President" by Newsweek. In truth, it was probably as much about forcefully saying something to evangelicals about modern Mormons, who long-ago put away polygamy.
"People of different faiths, like yours and mine," he said to the latest graduating class of the Southern Baptist-affiliated college, "sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose when there are so many differences in creed and theology."
Romney's answer to that question was surprising, because it eschewed politics. "We can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview." And he offered as "the best case" for the truth of this statement the "example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God's love into every life."
The specific example that he recalled was the late Chuck Colson: Nixon hatchet man, convert, and preacher to prisoners. Romney said that Colson had been "assured by people of influence" that even after serving time for Watergate-related crimes, "a man with his connections and experience could still live very comfortably."
Those movers would "make some calls, get Chuck situated, and set him up once again as an important man." Colson decided instead to throw his lot in with the captives and became "instead a great man."
That was the second dig Romney took at political insiders in the speech, but probably not the most risky. The first was a joke aimed squarely at himself and at the founder of Liberty, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Falwell had visited the Romneys at their home in Belmont, Massachusetts, and the time came to pose for a picture. Mitt had proposed that Falwell be in the center of the photo, with him and Ann on either side. Falwell said no. Ann should be front and center: "He explained, by pointing to me and himself, 'You see, Christ died between two thieves.'"
The language of Romney's speech was restrained and, as these things go, elegant. He artfully identified himself as a Mormon without using the word. He did use the words "God, Jesus, Christ, and Lord" a few times, but, from a writerly perspective at least, never in vain.
Romney also picked a fight about American history that should shape his campaign in the months to come. "From the beginning, this nation has trusted in God, not man," he said, adding, "Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution."
The Liberty commencement was almost an anti-political speech and therefore a radically political one. Business Insider headlined it, "Mitt Romney Just Gave the Biggest Speech of the 2012 Campaign." The views that he put forward of religion, family, charity, and the preeminence of culture were not the usual mix of reheated platitudes and red meat that we've come to expect from the de facto Republican nominee.
Perhaps that was because of the venue. He told the Liberty graduating class that their values would "not always be the object of public admiration." The Brigham Young University-educated Romney added, "the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world." He left viewers with the strong sense that, for the most part, he shares those convictions.
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