NEWS ANALYSIS: Mitt Romney gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday, offering a confident and heartfelt speech that largely avoided politics and policy, but focused instead on values, culture and faith.
He didn't mention President Barack Obama by name, but he did take a few oblique digs at his adversary. "Not everyone has achieved as much in these last four years as you have," he said during his opening comments.
The highly anticipated speech placed Romney at the crossroads of two conflicts. It had been long-anticipated as a key step in consolidating support of conservative evangelical Christians, who had rallied behind Rick Santorum in the primary fight and had shown strong aversion to Romney's Mormon faith.
In this first objective, the speech may have been effective. "He did it," enthused David Brody at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Brody credited the success to Romney's "subtle case that his worldview comports with those of evangelical Christians. In short, Mitt Romney’s speech should be seen as a successful and important bridge to evangelicals." More later on Romney's subtlety.
But after Obama's embrace of gay marriage earlier in the week, the speech took on added significance and a second objective. In responding to Obama's move on gay marriage, Romney had very briefly confirmed his position in favor of traditional marriage, but also made it clear that he would rather be talking about the economy.
In many ways, the Liberty address is the speech Romney had to give but would have preferred not to give. Romney’s campaign strategy rests on sticking rigorously to the economic failures of the past four years, with the tagline “Obama isn’t working.” And yet, he had to reassure values voters that he was not indifferent to their concerns.
Among those concerns is, of course, marriage. At Liberty on Saturday, Romney did address marriage, though only in a single sentence, saying simply that "marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
How he got there is perhaps of greater note. Rather than leaping into the marriage issue with an enthusiastic burst of ideology and rancor, he got there deftly via solid social science, economics and culture.
“You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal. Harvard historian David Landes devoted his lifelong study to understanding why some civilizations rise, and why others falter. His conclusion: Culture makes all the difference. Not natural resources, not geography, but what people believe and value. Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life. The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.
The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2 percent. But, if those things are absent, 76 percent will be poor. Culture matters. 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."
By leveraging a Harvard economist and a Brookings Institution study, with a shout out to Rick Santorum along the way, Romney said what his audience required without sounding strident or harsh.
The speech achieved a rare seamless connection between the speaker and the words. Whoever wrote it knows his or her man. Romney may be no Reagan, but here he bumped up against that standard of soaring ideals grounded in personal authenticity. The authenticity is most evident in the video or audio, where it is clear that Romney owns and feels every word.
The speech was frankly Christian in outlook, and it clearly expressed Romney’s own personal perspective. By tradition, presidents and presidential candidates generally avow their own Christianity, but then step back to a more vague and ecumenical position in their public statements.
Such detachment would likely not have served Romney here, as he needs to shore up his party’s Christian base, which remains suspicious of his unorthodox beliefs. A delicate balance was required. Somehow he struck it. He overtly asserted Christian values without sounding pandering or forced, and in fact appeared to be more natural and at ease with himself than he has been probably since before the 2008 campaign.
One reason the speech worked is that he was not leveraging Christian values to make policy claims. Instead, he downplayed the public sphere, asserting instead the primacy of personal and familial faith. In doing so, he convincingly expressed his own inner core.
"There is no greater force for good in the world than Christian conscience in action," he said. “The great drama of Christianity is not a crowd shot,” he said, but rather it is “always in the personal, individual, unfolding in one’s life."
“So many things compete for our attention and devotion. We are all prone to treat the trivial things as all important, and the all important things as trivial, and little by little lose sight of the one thing that endures forever.
“These things may occupy our attention but they do not define us. Each of them is subject to the vagaries and the serendipities of life. Our relationship with our Maker, however, depends on none of that. It’s entirely in our control. For he is always at the door, and knocks for us.”
By downplaying the public sphere and emphasizing family and personal faith, Romney subtly reinforced his wife’s position as a traditional mother in the Mommy Wars fiasco of late last month. “My dad was a CEO, a governor and a member of the president’s cabinet,” he noted, but when his wife asked George Romney what his greatest accomplishment was, “without a pause he said, ‘raising our four kids.’”
“Among the things in life that can be put off, being there when it matters most is not one of them,” Romney said. He cited C.S. Lewis’ statement that “the home is the ultimate career. All the careers exist for one purpose and that is to support the ultimate career.”
Romney also reached outside the public sphere to emphasize the role of private faith in driving people to service and finding shared values in doing so. “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.”
To support that answer, Romney pointed to Chuck Colson’s prison ministry, and his determination to “carry God’s love into every life.” After Colson was released from his Watergate scandal prison term, Romney said, friends approached him with offers to help him recover his fortunes and again become an “important man.” But Colson turned them down, launched his prison ministry, and instead, Romney said, “became a a great man.” The “call to service is a fundamental element of our national character and culture,” he added.
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