Romney keeps politics at bay as he addresses Liberty University grads in religious terms

LYNCHBURG, Va. – Mitt Romney on Saturday reaffirmed his opposition to same sex marriage – triggering a standing ovation – in a commencement address here in which the presumptive Republican nominee spoke in deeply religious terms that were far more personal.

It was a significant departure for a candidate who is typically most at ease touring manufacturing facilities, participating in economic roundtables, and talking about data in power point presentations.

Romney quoted religious authors like C.S. Lewis and referenced evangelists like Billy Graham. He talked about God’s ability to “reawaken our hearts” in “a world that searches for meaning.” And he made the case that “there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.”

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“He is always at the door, and knocks for us,” Romney said. “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.”

The football stadium was filled with about 35,000 students, friends, and family members, making it the largest crowd Romney has addressed aside from the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Romney’s appearance, planned weeks ago, came at the end of a lively political week that was dominated by President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage.

But the presumptive Republican nominee largely avoided politics altogether. He never mentioned abortion, he said the word “economy” only twice, and had only one reference to gay marriage.

“Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” he said, triggering a standing ovation and the largest applause of the address.

Romney never mentioned his Mormon faith, but he did reference it once. Some evangelicals have said that Mormonism is not Christianity – and Liberty University has courses that refer to it as a “cult.”

“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. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”

Romney also gave a generous tribute to Jerry Falwell, the founder of the university who died five years ago.

“We remember him as a courageous and big-hearted minister of the Gospel who never feared an argument, and never hated an adversary,” Romney said. “Jerry deserves the tribute he would have treasured most, as a cheerful, confident champion for Christ.”

He also recounted their meeting at Romney’s home in Belmont, where Falwell posed for a picture, insisting that Ann Romney stand in the middle.

“He explained, by pointing to me and himself, ‘You see, Christ died between two thieves,’ ” Romney said.

After making clear that the university was a non-profit that doesn’t endorse candidates, Falwell nonetheless introduced Romney as “the next president of the United States.”

He entered the stage to a hearty choral rendition of “Ride on King Jesus.” He left the podium to “When I think about the Lord.”

“Promotions often mark the high points in a career,” Romney said. “And I hope I haven’t seen my last.”