Romney Among the Evangelicals

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The fates are aligning for Romney to make a successful pitch when he delivers the commencement address Saturday at the Christian college Jerry Falwell founded.

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On Saturday, the stage is set for Mitt Romney to deliver a powerful message straight into the heart of the Christian Right when he delivers the 39th Commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

With an anticipated audience of 34,000 -- more than 14,000 graduating students, along with their families, friends, and scores of reporters -- thronging the stands and packing the field at the Williams Stadium football arena on the Evangelical school's campus, many observers expect the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to hew to his message of restoring America's founding values, with a special emphasis on the sanctity of the family.

When he does so, he will set aside his usual stump speech, says Romney adviser Mark DeMoss, and stump instead for the hearts and minds of political foot soldiers itching for a culture war with President Obama over same-sex marriage.

This year, Liberty is graduating its largest class in the school's history, and when they receive their degrees tomorrow from Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., it will mark not only the end of their formal educations at Liberty, but, in the words university's late founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., the conclusion of their training to become "Champions for Christ." Romney's commencement address is chance to connect them immediately to the world of electoral politics, and one that cold win him greater support from young, public-spirited Evangelical Christians -- and also help woo the "Anybody but Mitt" crowd still smarting from the bruising GOP primaries.

Any attempt to claim the mantle of America's culture warrior-in-chief in this community normally would be a hard sell for a Mormon, not to mention the one-time governor of Massachusetts. Until the past few weeks, the Christian Right's embrace of Romney had been reluctant at best. As Redstate.com's Erick Erickson described it recently, the campaign had "a tin ear" when it came to Evangelical voters. "A number of them may sit out" this election, he predicted.

And while Romney's Mormonism remains an almost insurmountable hurdle for some Christian conservatives, at least one early theological and political foe, Texas mega-church pastor (and onetime Rick Perry supporter) Richard Jeffress, has come round to endorsing him. "I still maintain there are vast differences in theology between Mormons and Christians," Jeffress told Fox News Sunday in April, "but we do share many of the same values."

On Saturday, Romney won't engage in the "Mormons aren't Christian debate" that Jeffress politicized earlier during the campaign. Instead he'll emphasize, in a speech that will be more personal than policy-oriented, the values Evangelicals and Mormons share. The fates are aligning for Romney to make a successful pitch.

Over the past few weeks, Evangelical support in key swing states like Virginia has consolidated behind Romney. Obama's public backing of same-sex marriage this week riled the religious right, making it that much easier for Romney to convince the skeptics he is a true believer on the cultural issues that bring droves to the polls. The Washington Post's story revealing Romney had forcibly cut the hair of a boarding school classmate believed to be gay added further kindling to the mix, as many conservatives felt he was being unfairly smeared, again on gay issues. And while Romney this week has attempted to stay away from the culture war front Obama opened, America's values voters will look to him Saturday to lead their fight on issues that for many could trump jobs, taxes and the deficit this fall.

LIBERTY AND THE RIGHT

Founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College, today, Liberty University is the largest Evangelical institution of higher education in the world, with more than 12,000 residential students and another 60,000 online. Part of Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church empire, the school was envisioned as a Christian antidote to America's secularized, and according to Falwell, often godless colleges.

Liberty has since emerged as the world's most influential Evangelical university, becoming a required stop for GOP presidents and presidential hopefuls as the power of Falwell's Moral Majority grew throughout the 1980s. Reagan laid down a cornerstone with his visit in 1980, and Romney's visit this year follows on the heels of ones by Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both of whom visited the university in September 2011 as part of their presidential campaigns. Newt Gingrich has even played a hand as Liberty scholar; last October, the university unveiled a new online course entitled "American Exceptionalism" designed by part-time historian.

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Max Perry Mueller is associate editor of Religion & Politics, a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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