LYNCHBURG, Va. — On page 173 of the course catalog for Liberty University, the country's largest Evangelical Christian college, there's a graduate course labeled Theology 678—Western and New Religions.
Its innocuous title belies the description of its curriculum:
"The history, doctrines, and present state of the major cults such as Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventism. The course will also include a study of the Occult Movement. Emphasis is placed on the errors of these groups and on methods and materials for confronting them effectively."
The course is just one reminder that when Mitt Romney takes the stand on Saturday to deliver the commencement speech at Liberty U, he will be addressing more than 2,000 evangelical students who have been taught that his Mormon faith is a cult that must be defeated.
But that doesn't mean they won't vote for him. As the Republican Party sits poised, for the first time in modern history, to nominate a presidential candidate who's not a protestant Christian, conservative Evangelicals across campus — and, indeed, across the country — are struggling to reconcile their theology with their politics. Can they really support a heretic for president?
Romney is unlikely to say anything that will change their minds in Saturday's address. The campaign didn't respond to requests for comment, but excerpts of the speech that were released Friday focus on the importance of family, and maintaining a work/life balance. Instead of reaching for a Kennedy-esque call for religious tolerance, the speech will likely remain consistent with the campaign's overall strategy this cycle: Avoid the Mormon issue at all costs.
In the absence of comforting rhetoric from the candidate, Romney's dutiful followers here at Liberty are turning to scripture to justify supporting him.
"The Bible actually talks about this," said senior class president Thomas Moore, echoing a common refrain on campus when Romney's name comes up.
Sitting at a table in Liberty's cavernous student center — a well-furnished warehouse of a building on the edge of campus, complete with leather couches, ping pong tables, and video game consoles — Moore explained how the Old Testament helped him come to terms with supporting a Mormon presidential candidate. Specifically, he cited Exodus 18:25:
"And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens."
"Able men go first," he said, pausing for emphasis. "And that's always been important to me. I always look for the most able person [in a candidate]. Yes, faith is a huge part of it, because it's part of who I am... But we need to pick someone who will get the job done."
It's the sort of scripture-based argument Moore has had to make repeatedly in recent weeks. When Romney was announced as the university's commencement speaker, many students were outraged that the administration would choose someone who belonged to what they see as a false religion for the occasion. They filled the school's Facebook page with indignant messages. They penned editorials in the campus newspaper. Some even pledged to boycott the ceremony in protest.
But while Moore dubbed the dissenters "radicals" who don't represent the wider student body, he conceded that even his more reasonable classmates — who, he says, are welcoming Romney's visit with Christian hospitality — have not come lightly to their support for the Mormon candidate.
The reluctance is understandable. Founded in 1971 by Dr. Jerry Fallwell as a training ground for conservative culture warriors, Liberty's stated mission is to turn its overwhelmingly Republican student body into "champions for Christ." To help reach that end, the school enforces a strict moral code that prohibits kissing, R-rated movies, social dancing, and drinking. It has also hosted a number of key conservative figures over the decades, from Ronald Reagan to John McCain, who come seeking the activist support of the students and their coreligionists. (When Glenn Beck, another Mormon, was invited to deliver the keynote commencement speech two years ago, he was also met with some resistance.)
Bethany Davis, a Spanish major who was elected as the school's first female student body president last year, said the goal of a Liberty education is, "To be able to out into the workforce and just always be strong in my faith and be able to impact my workplace and those around me with my Christian faith."
With that mission in mind, most students are studying to pursue careers in Christian ministry, politics, media — or some amalgamation of the three. Several described desires to use their educations to keep conservative Christian values in the mainstream, fighting the tide of secularism, homosexuality, and false religions — like Mormonism.
"They just have their theology wrong," said Chad Atchison, a pre-law major from Arlington, VA, describing Mormons. "We don't look to hate anyone, or want to detract from anyone's beliefs. But we're not just going to say that there are many ways to heaven and that might be one of them. Anyone who's an evangelical will tell you there's only one way to heaven."
That said, in Atchison's reading of the Bible, he finds evidence that Christians should work closely with national leaders, even those who "hold a flawed view of who God is." He spoke of Christ's "great commission," found in Matthew 28: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Atchison believes that by forming an alliance with a man who could be president this time next year, Liberty is actually advancing God's kingdom.
"We are opening ourselves up to the rest of the world and showing that Christianity belongs in the political realm," he said. "We're showing ourselves to be an institution in the upper echelons of academics in the country."
And besides, even if Romney tried to preach from the Book of Mormon, Atchison said, the false doctrine would have no sway at Liberty: "There is no way that any word that he could say would detract from God's work. If that happened, God would not be God."
The same sentiment surfaced in an editorial in the campus newspaper, the Liberty Champion:
By the students’ senior year, their faith should be solidified. That is Liberty’s desire.
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” according to Ephesians 4:14.
As Champions for Christ, our faith should not waver based on the person speaking at commencement. Our faith should be challenged and stretched by the speaker — whether he is of Christian or Mormon faith.
But for all the students' theological gymnastics, the fact remains that, according to their own education, their school is hosting an avowed cultist on campus this weekend. Moore admits that many students view Mormonism that way, but he thinks the rhetoric is overblown.
"When you say cult, I think of Branch Davidians, you know?" he said. "David Koresh, drinking the Kool-Aid, all that. I don't think Mitt Romney wants anyone to drink any Kool-Aid, he's just got an economic plan that a lot of people think will work."
Atchison, who said he "has no problem" supporting Romney, rejected the cult label as well, but for a different reason.
"I wouldn't call it a cult, honestly, because I think that's taking away from the power it has," he mused. "When it started it could definitely be called a cult; a bunch of people in covered wagons going out to Utah. But since then, it's grown into what we would call a major religion. Calling it a cult takes away from its influence."
Then, he added quickly, "I don't think that's good influence necessarily, just as much as I would say the Democrats don't have good influence in this country."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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