Mitt Romney makes his case to evangelicals

LYNCHBURG, Va. — When it came to evangelicals in this year’s primaries, Mitt Romney was most often the rejected suitor — struggling to overcome suspicions about his authenticity as a conservative and his Mormon faith.

On Saturday at the evangelical university founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Romney tried to tackle those lingering misgivings as the presumed Republican nominee — by delivering a speech that delved deep into his faith and by urging about 30,000 in the audience at Liberty University to look beyond their differences with his religion.

“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, alluding to the long-standing tensions between Mormons and evangelical Protestants, many of whom do not consider Mormonism to be part of the Christian faith. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”

The former Massachusetts governor took the stage after Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., quoting his father, noted that the American people would be “electing a commander in chief, not a pastor or a religious leader” in November.

Still, Romney dipped more deeply into the subject of religion than at any time since 2007, when he formally addressed his Mormon faith during a Texas speech, saying he was “an American running for president” and did not define his candidacy by his religion.

During his 20-minute address before about 6,000 black-robed graduates at Liberty’s Williams Stadium, Romney mentioned God nine times. He praised Christian luminaries like abolitionist William Wilberforce, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Rev. Billy Graham. He sought to reassure his evangelical listeners of their shared conservative principles: his belief in the primacy of family, his opposition to gay marriage and his intent to champion religious liberty in a nation that “from the beginning,” he said, “trusted in God, not man.”

Citing the work of David Landes, a professor emeritus of economics at Harvard University, Romney argued that the central element of America’s rise to global leadership “is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every human life.”

Romney received a standing ovation before and after his speech, and one line brought the entire crowd to its feet: his affirmation that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman” — a repudiation of same-sex marriage and of President Obama, who announced his support for gay marriage Wednesday.

Romney also credited former rival Rick Santorum — who trounced Romney among evangelicals in primary after primary — with helping to shape his thinking on what he called the “enduring institution of marriage” and the power of family values. Santorum, he said, had shared a Brookings Institution study showing that those who earn high school degrees, get full-time jobs and marry before having children have a far greater chance of financial success than those who don’t.

“Culture — what you believe, how you live — matters,” he said.

Romney’s allies and detractors alike viewed Saturday’s speech as a pivotal moment that would test the candidate’s ability to inspire a group of voters that must organize on his behalf if he is to defeat Obama in key swing states like Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Florida and Ohio.

Even before the bruising primary season, a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life late last year showed that Romney began at a disadvantage with that group. More than half of white evangelical Protestant Republicans surveyed said they did not view the Mormon religion as a Christian faith; 15% said Romney’s Mormonism would make them less likely to vote for him.

When that uneasiness was paired with distrust of Romney’s shift on abortion and gay rights, and his unpopular healthcare plan in Massachusetts, “You could almost draw a straight line down from the states with the fewest evangelical voters, where he did the best in Republican primaries, and those states where you have the largest proportion and he did the poorest,” said Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who specializes in the intersection of politics and religion.

Those results raised questions about whether Romney would be able to match the 73% of the evangelical vote won by 2008 Republican nominee John McCain — who had to overcome his 2000 critique of Falwell and fellow evangelist Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” — much less the 79% won byPresidentGeorge W. Bush in 2004.

But Romney has surprised prominent leaders in the faith community and even some of his detractors with recent poll numbers showing the Republican Party and evangelicals consolidating behind him, which has helped him pull even with Obama in a number of battleground states. In the most recent head-to-head matchups by the Pew Center, Romney was polling near the same threshold among evangelicals that McCain ultimately won.

Driving that consolidation, said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, is a phenomenon that was overlooked in the primary: Many of the Republican voters who were most suspicious of Romney are also among Obama’s fiercest adversaries.

Because of that, Green said, “It’s quite possible, and perhaps even likely, that evangelical support for Romney will be closer to George Bush’s numbers than John McCain’s.” But, he added, “The Romney campaign has to make that happen by campaigning.”

The work ahead for Romney was evident Saturday in interviews with friends and family members of the new Liberty graduates. Many in the crowd Saturday said Romney had not been their first choice. Questions about their enthusiasm often prompted shrugs or tepid responses like “He’s fine.” But faced with no other choice on the Republican side, many of them were also brimming with advice for Romney and pleased that he had chosen to address a sector of the party that had been cool to him.

Recalling Romney’s line about how the nation had been founded on Judeo-Christian principles, Sherry Snyder, 51, a Republican from Roanoke who works at a Bible school, said he should continue to hark back to that theme, which she said is “what we stand for.”

John Fletcher, a conservative from Dale City, Va., who admired Santorum’s “belief in the Bible” — though his first choice would have been Sarah Palin — said Romney needed to “talk with a little more conviction” about his values and would be well-served by elaborating more often on “his belief in God.”

Mark and Kaye Cronshaw of Chicago said they have favored Romney all along because of “his character” but were concerned about whether their community would embrace him. They said that watching Romney sit beside Jerry Falwell Jr. onstage and talk about his first meeting with Jerry Falwell Sr. reaffirmed for them that they had made the right choice.

Kaye Cronshaw said that the tone of Romney’s speech was perfect and that she hoped the crowd had taken note of the relationships he has tried to build with evangelical leaders. “It really means a lot that he takes the time to want to understand and to be a part of that community,” she said. “If people understand that about him, it will be very important.”

“The more affirmation that he has from religious leaders — Christians like Jerry Falwell Jr.,” her husband said, “That’s huge. It’s really huge.”