Romney poised for pilgrimage to Liberty University

Liberty University
Billy Hathorn,Wikimedia Commons
Billy Hathorn,Wikimedia Commons

Updated 8:42 a.m. Eastern Time

(CBS News) On Saturday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will travel to Lynchburg, Virginia, to deliver the commencement address at the evangelical Christian university founded in 1971 by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.: Liberty University.

Liberty - which was founded under the name Lynchburg Baptist College - identifies itself as the largest Christian university in the world, and it has become a go-to setting for Republican presidential candidates eager to appeal to evangelicals. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and John McCain all made the trip to Liberty, with Mr. Bush offering the commencement address while in the White House. Saturday will mark Romney's first visit to the school.

In the past year, several 2012 Republican presidential primary candidates used visits to Liberty to spotlight their faith. Michele Bachmann delivered an intensely personal and religious speechduring which she told students, "don't settle for anything less than what this great and mighty God has planned for you." Rick Perry offered something akin to a sermon, telling students, "My faith journey is not the story of someone who turned to God because I wanted to. It is because I had nowhere else to turn." 

For Romney, who is Mormon, faith is a delicate issue. Some Christians do not believe that Mormonism is a legitimate branch of Christianity; One prominent Dallas pastor, Dr. Robert Jefress, referred to Mormonism as a "theological cult"while introducing Perry at last year's "Values Voters Summit." Though Mormons believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ - the full name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - they treat The Book of Mormon, a text unique to Mormonism, as divine scripture on equal footing with the Bible. A prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, stops short of calling Mormonism a cult outright but says, "I wouldn't call it a cult but it claims to be Christian and isn't. It's theology is like a cult but socially and culturally it doesn't act like a cult." One poll last year found that one in five Americans say they do not feel comfortable with Romney's faith. 

When it was posted to Liberty's Facebook page, the announcement that Romney would give Liberty's commencement address prompted hundreds of comments, some of which criticized the university for inviting Romney. Many critics charged that Mormonism goes against the teachings at Liberty, where, as CNN reported last month, one freshman textbook includes a passage that reads: "Mormon doctrine stands in stark contrast to Jewish and Christian monotheism, which teaches that there is only one true God and that every other 'God' is a false god." Liberty student Braedon Wilkerson complained that the school is "sacrificing the Bible for the Republican party." 

Liberty ended up removing the announcement from its Facebook page, with Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. saying that the critics were either supporters of rival candidates or "online students who were not as familiar with Liberty University's traditions." (Liberty says it has more than 12,000 students on campus and more than 70,000 enrolled online.) The chairman of the Liberty board's executive committee told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that Falwell Sr. would have been proud to have Romney as a guest.

Liberty is an obvious forum for Romney to address concerns about his faith to an evangelical audience. But he appears unlikely to do so. In excerpts released by the Romney campaign Friday morning, Romney offered up a variation on his now-familiar attacks on the president, tailored to the forum: "I'm not sure quite why, but lately I've found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches. And let's just say that not everybody has filled these past four years with as much achievement as you have."

Romney does not address his faith in the excerpts; the closest he comes is when he says "the best cultural assets are values as basic as personal responsibility, the dignity of hard work, and, above all, the commitments of family."

Sources inside his campaign say the candidate, who largely avoided discussing his faith during the GOP primary campaign, does not plan to make a major speech on Mormonism during the general election, either.

They say Romney gave that speech already, when he was a presidential candidate four years ago, when he said "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it."

"My faith is the faith of my fathers," Romney continued in the December, 2007 speech in Texas. "I'll be true to them and to my beliefs. There's one fundamental question about which I'm often asked: What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind."

"I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty," he added.

Romney struggled to connect with evangelical voters during the Republican primary fight, with evangelicals largely rallying around Rick Santorum instead. In a general election matchup with President Obama, however, he is widely expected to win the support of evangelical voters. Jeffries, the pastor who called Mormonism a cult, said last month that "[g]iven the choice between a Christian like Barack Obama who embraces very unbiblical principles like abortion and a Mormon like Mitt Romney who supports biblical values like the sanctity of life and marriage, I think there's a good biblical case for voting for Mitt Romney."

Romney's remarks at Liberty - which in 2009 revoked its recognition of the campus College Democratsbecause the club's "parent organization stands against the moral principles" held by the university - are expected to come before more than 14,000 graduates and more 34,000 people overall. Liberty says the remarks, in the university's football stadium, will also be streamed to its more than 70,000 online students.  

They will also be featured prominently in local media outlets -- and since Liberty is in Virginia, one of the most important battleground states of the 2012 election, Romney has an extra incentive to steer clear of controversy. Instead of wading into the culture wars or the debate that broke out over his invitation to the university, expect the candidate to largely offer friendly advice and his standard message of economic competence.

In the remarks released by the campaign, Romney talks about the importance of raising children well and hints to the graduates that if he is elected, their future will be brighter.

"Although opportunities seem scarce in this economy, it is not for nothing that you have spent this time preparing," he plans to say. "America needs your talent and your energy, all the more now that our country's in a tough spot. For you and so many young Americans, our current troubles can be discouraging. You are ready for jobs that were supposed to be ready for you. Millions wait on the day when there are jobs for everyone willing to work, and opportunities to match your hopes and your goals. But don't lose heart, because that day is coming."