It's no wonder that Mitt Romney won plaudits from evangelical bigwigs for his commencement speech at Liberty University on Saturday. It showed he's learned how to talk to them--or at least, learned to listen to the people who know how he's supposed to talk to them.
When he was running for president last time, Romney told the bigs that he was pretty much like them in considering Jesus his Lord and Savior. But if there's anything evangelicals don't like, it's Mormons claiming to be Christians like them. Then he gave a speech declaring that, like a presidential candidate half a century earlier, he did not "define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith." But evangelicals (these days) don't much believe in Kennedyesque separation of faith and public office.
At Liberty, by contrast, he extravagantly praised the Christian commitment of the graduates while differentiating his own faith in a way that did not quite claim that it was Christian too. Thus, for starters, he informed the graduates that "moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals" would set them apart and put them in the company of a bunch of Christian luminaries that did not include Joseph Smith and Brigham Young:
That said, your values will not always be the object of public admiration. In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Christianity is not the faith of the complacent, the comfortable or of the timid. It demands and creates heroic souls like Wesley, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, John Paul the Second, and Billy Graham. Each showed, in their own way, the relentless and powerful influence of the message of Jesus Christ. May that be your guide.
He went on to flick the audience a morsel of red marital meat: "As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman." (Whew!) To embrace the conservative social cause du jour, religious liberty: "Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government." (Snap!) And to single out that great evangelical cause, Family: "I have never once regretted missing a business opportunity so that I could be with my children and grandchildren." (Wow!)
Finally it was time for the big differentiation:
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. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. The best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God’s love into every life--people like the late Chuck Colson.
In other words: Yes, our faiths are different, both creedally and theologically. But if we're both inspired by Christian example, what does that make us? Oh, yes, and you might recall that before he died, Colson publicly criticized fellow evangelical leaders who said you shouldn't vote for a Mormon.
It was, in short, an exceptionally well-calculated performance.
Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Program on Public Values. He joined Trinity College after working as a reporter, editorial writer and columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He writes on news media coverage of religious subject matter. His blog post appears via Religion News Service.