Romney strikes spiritual tone at Liberty University

Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney delivers the keynote address at Liberty University's 39th Annual Commencement in Lynchburg, Virginia, on May 12, 2012. Romney spoke to America's largest Christian university Saturday to court young religious conservatives and push family values in the wake of the gay marriage endorsement by US President Barack Obama. AFP PHOTO/Jim Watson (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages)
Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney delivers the keynote address at Liberty University's commencement, in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday, May 12, 2012.

Last Updated 1:45 p.m. ET

(CBS News) LYNCHBURG, Va. - Speaking at the graduation commencement of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the country on Saturday, Mitt Romney - the first presumptive Republican nominee of the Mormon faith - talked at length about the importance of God and faith. He told the crowd that people of different faiths can meet "in common purpose" through their moral decision-making and commitment to common causes, such as public service.

And in a nod to the social conservative movement he is still working to court, Romney reiterated his position on same-sex marriage, although he largely steered clear of political topics.

"Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman," Romney said firmly as the crowd of about 35,000 stood and clapped.

He spent a significant portion of time discussing the shared challenges and experiences of people of faith, and occasionally leavened his remarks with a self-deprecating anecdote.

"Your values will not always be the object of public admiration," he told the more than 6,000 graduating seniors. "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."

Romney emphasized the need to balance the material rewards in life with more spiritually uplifting aspects. "What we have, what we wish we had - ambitions fulfilled, ambitions disappointed; investments won, investments lost; elections won, elections lost - these things may occupy our attention, but they do not define us," he said.

"And each of them is subject to the vagaries and serendipities of life. Our relationship with our Maker, however, depends on none of this. It is entirely in our control, for He is always at the door, and knocks for us. Our worldly successes cannot be guaranteed, but our ability to achieve spiritual success is entirely up to us, thanks to the grace of God. The best advice I know is to give those worldly things your best but never your all, reserving the ultimate hope for the only one who can grant it."

He only briefly delved into discussion of the sour economy, the major theme of his campaign against incumbent President Obama. Invoking the fundamentalist Christian school's founder, Jerry Falwell, Romney says, "First, even though job opportunities are scarce in this economy, it is not for nothing that you have spent this time preparing. Jerry Falwell Sr. long ago observed that 'You do not determine a man's greatness by his talent or wealth, as the world does, but rather by what it takes to discourage him.'

"America needs your skill and talent. If we take the right course, we will see a resurgence in the American economy that will surprise the world, and that will open new doors of opportunity for those who are prepared as you are."

Often derided as a robotic candidate, Romney showed a lighter side as he recounted his five sons' reaction to his decision to manage the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. He said, "I'm embarrassed now to recall that when this opportunity was first presented to me, I dismissed it out of hand. I was busy, I was doing well, and, by the way, my lack of athletic prowess did not make the Olympics a logical step.

"In fact, after I had accepted the position, my oldest son called me and said, 'Dad, I've spoken to the brothers. We saw the paper this morning. We want you to know there's not a circumstance we could have conceived of that would put you on the front page of the sports section.'"

Romney's graceful speech may help him put his campaign back on track after a week of media portrayals of him as a pitiless high school bully. The Washington Post reported that Romney was the ring leader of a group of prep school boys who attacked a closeted gay student and cut off this bleached blond hair because they deemed it different than the norm.

Becky Penoyer, the mother of a graduate from Dacula, Ga., said she thought Romney "overcame a lot of the walls that people have tried to put up between his faith and the faith of other peoples."

"Basically in America, we vote on political issues, not on religious issues," she said. "They are separate from our political beliefs, and religious beliefs are separate from one another. ... I think he overcame a lot of the criticism that he's been getting because of his Mormon faith, because his Mormon faith did not play any part in what he shared with us today."

Another parent in the crowd, Bob Thompson of Portland, Ore., said Romney struck the right chord on same-sex marriage. "I think he needs to take a stand, and he took a stand. And especially it's really timely now ... And so, I think there was a lot of support on that."

His daughter, Chelsea Thompson, who graduated with a degree in psychology, disagreed, saying that even Romney's brief mention of the issue went too far in her view.

"I think students were a little frustrated that he said that, because they didn't want it to be a political, like, divider thing," she said. "The last half was really focused on graduates and graduation, and I really enjoyed that half."

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    Sarah Huisenga is covering the Mitt Romney campaign for CBS News and National Journal.