LYNCHBURG, Va. — Standing before a football stadium filled with Evangelical Christians Saturday morning, Mitt Romney did his best to speak the language of the true believers.
It's a dialect in which he's conversational, if not fluent, having picked it up in 2008 while first running for president as a conservative culture warrior. That bid flopped when he failed to overcome the religious Right's suspicion of his pro-life conversion and Mormon faith.
Four years later, he made a symbolic return to the Evangelical community with a commencement address at Liberty University, the largest Christian college in the world, to make a renewed pitch for their support — and, once again, try to bridge the divide between his Mormon faith and theirs.
Reading from a teleprompter, and sticking closely to his prepared text, the Republican moved from one buzzword-studded paragraph to the next, sounding conservative Christian themes like religious liberty, family values, and living a "purpose-driven life." In less than 20 minutes, he managed to name-check more than a half-dozen key Christian figures, including C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Chuck Colson, Billy Graham, and, of course, Jerry Falwell, the influential pastor who founded Liberty 40 years ago.
"Whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action," Romney said, drawing a few amens from the crowd.
He also received a standing ovation when he declared, raising his voice a little and punctuating each word, "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
But Romney wasn't just trying to masquerade as a Baptist preacher. In perhaps the highest-profile peace offering ever from Mormonism to Evangelical Christianity, Romney took the opportunity in his speech to appeal to the communities' shared values.
"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."
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor who has taught at Liberty for 13 years, said such ecumenical rhetoric may be a waste of time. While she allowed that many students have real concerns about putting a Mormon in the White House, the real disconnect, she argued, comes from his apparent lack of political conviction. At a campus full of true believers, "posturing politicians" don't have a lot of appeal, she said.
"The founding of this University is based on a certain kind of idealism," said Prior. "Political idealism, cultural idealism, religious idealism. And so I think that’s why there isn’t really a mesh between a speaker like Romney and the students here."
The attendees' reviews of Romney's speech — generally positive, but slightly cynical — seemed to confirm Prior's thesis.
Asked what he thought of the Romney's remarks, Carl Koch of New Bern, North Carolina, whose daughter was among the graduates, responded bluntly, "I think he had good speechwriters."
Koch said he would probably vote for Romney "by default," but complained about the candidate's "disingenuous" attempts to establish common ground between Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity.
"When we talk about Jesus Christ, he talks about Jesus Christ as well, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're talking about the same person," he said. "I don't need to be persuaded about how close we are theologically, because we're not... I am not enamored by the attempt to blur the lines. It shouldn't even be an issue. I believe something you don't believe."
But when Koch was asked if he'd feel more comfortable supporting an Evangelical version of Romney, he paused for a beat, and then demurred.
"No — well, not necessarily," he responded haltingly. "Look, he's only representing one third of our government. There's still the legislative and judicial branches, so he's not all there is."
Similarly, T.J. Timpson, of Maryland, said he liked Romney's remarks, but dismissed it as a "political speech."
"At the beginning, he sort of talked about the graduates, but then it just turned into a campaign speech about himself," said Timson, whose wife was graduating.
Toward the beginning of the ceremony, Mark DeMoss, a well-known Evangelical and longtime Romney supporter, took to the podium to vouch for the Mormon candidate. He recounted a meeting between Romney and Dr. Falwell four years ago, after which the candidate sent the pastor a chair engraved with the words, "There's always room for you at my table."
"I trust him to do the right thing," DeMoss said. "To do the moral thing, to do what's best for our country. I trust his integrity, his moral compass, his judgment, and his perfect decency. Finally, I trust his values, for I feel they mirror my own."
It was meant to be a unifying moment of culture war diplomacy on DeMoss's part, a nod to his fellow Evangelicals that Romney was, in fact, one of them. But in the middle of his speech, an angry voice from the back of the graduates' section interrupted: "Hey Mitt! Jesus is the only way!"
The outburst was isolated, and a number of the more polite attendees turned to quiet the heckler. But it was a reminder that, while Romney may have been speaking to an army of political supporters, they were far from accepting the religion that shaped him.
At Liberty, students and faculty are fond of quoting a favorite maxim of Dr. Falwell's: "If it's Christian, it ought to be better."
For the thousands of conservative Evangelicals on campus Saturday who reject the candidate's claim to Christianity, Romney may represent a compromise: They're voting for him because they can't do better.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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