LYNCHBURG, Va. Mitt Romneys Mormon faith has shaped his life, but he barely mentioned it as he spoke to graduates at an evangelical Christian university Saturday.
And he barely touched on hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, instead offering a broad-based defense of values such as family and hard work.
Culture what you believe, what you value, how you live matters, Romney told graduates gathered in the football stadium on Liberty Universitys campus in the Virginia mountains. 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.
Instead of a red-meat, conservative-policy speech, Romney discussed his own family and offered a defense of Christianity, saying that there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action. Still, he was inclusive: Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life, Romney said.
He had one sustained applause line in a 20-minute speech delivered days after President Barack Obama historically embraced gay marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman, Romney said to a cheering crowd of students who have to follow a strict code of conduct that considers sex out of wedlock and homosexuality to be sins.
On Saturday, Obama was not seeking to revisit the issue of gay marriage. In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president didnt mention his history-making endorsement. Instead, he repeated his call for congressional lawmakers to take up a to-do list of tax breaks, mortgage relief and other initiatives that he insists will create jobs and help middle-class families struggling in the sluggish economy.
Having spent part of the week on the West Coast raising money for his re-election effort, Obama appeared in the Rose Garden of the White House to honor award-winning law-enforcement officers.
It was Obamas first joint appearance with Vice President Joe Biden after Biden, according to aides, apologized to the president for pushing gay marriage to the forefront of the presidential campaign and inadvertently pressuring Obama to declare his support for same-sex unions.
Meanwhile, Romney focused on an the opportunity to address the kind of socially conservative audience that had been wary of him during the prolonged GOP primary fight. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971 to be for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is to young Catholics and Brigham Young is to young Mormons, as his son, University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., said on commencement day. Its become a destination for Republican politicians looking to speak to the religious right. Romneys campaign team planned the speech long before gay marriage became a central issue.
In his campaign, Romneys challenge with conservative voters is twofold. His past policy positions, including support for abortion rights, dont sit well. But his personal faith also is an issue because many evangelicals dont consider Mormons to be fellow Christians. Evangelicals are a critical segment of the GOP base; many of those voters backed his GOP rivals in the prolonged primary.
When he locks in the Republican presidential nomination, Romney will make history as the first Mormon nominee from a major party. His faith is central to him and to his family he spent two years in France as a missionary, a time when he lived in occasionally primitive conditions. When he returned home, he attended Brigham Young University, a Mormon school, and married his wife, Ann, who had converted to Mormonism. As they built a life in Boston, Romney took on a significant leadership role in the church, serving as a lay pastor, fighting to build a temple in town and counseling families in need.
But hes mostly avoided talking about it on the campaign trail, largely avoiding religious forums and events throughout the primary season.
And at arguably the most religious venue hes addressed during the campaign since announcing his bid, Romney hasnt made a public appearance in a church of any kind he continued to keep his own faith in the background.
Romneys selection as commencement speaker was an issue for some students who graduated from Liberty this weekend. When the school announced Romney as commencement speaker, hundreds of angry comments were posted on Libertys Facebook page by people who said they were students or alumni, objecting to giving a Mormon a platform. The school responded by affirming its welcome to Romney.
There was some concern in my family, yes, because of Romneys Mormonism, said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army colonel whose nephew is a member of the 2012 class.
Ahead of Romneys remarks, Falwell said the schools invitation to him should not be considered an endorsement. He noted that his father, the schools founder, said that Christians should vote for the candidate who shares their political positions not the candidate that shares his or her faith or theology.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.