(Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
For all the attention on Mitt Romney's commencement speech at Liberty University on Saturday, most of it has been on how or if he will try and woo evangelicals voters. But the conservative school's president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., hopes the focus of Romney's message will be on the graduates and not on politics.
Falwell took time from his busy to schedule to give The Christian Post some insight into past commencement speeches at Liberty and also explained that having a non-evangelical deliver the commencement speech is nothing new.
In fact, since 1971, 21 of the last 39 speakers who have addressed the graduates have been non-evangelicals.
"Liberty has a long tradition of having leaders from business and politics give our commencement speeches," said Falwell. "Each year when we invite someone who is not an evangelical I deal with the same questions and each year I explain our traditions and why we feel the speaker's insight and message will benefit our graduates."
"Gov. Romney is an accomplished business leader and politician," explained Falwell. "He has reached a pinnacle of success in his business career and I believe our graduates can gain valuable insight into what traits and skills it takes for a person with high moral standards to succeed in today's competitive business environment."
Founded in 1971 by Falwell's father, the late Dr. Jerry Falwell, Liberty is the largest private nonprofit university in the nation and the largest Christian university in the world.
According to the school's website, "our code of conduct teaches discipline and promotes a lifestyle of Biblical morality but is well-balanced to allow students the freedom to enjoy their college experience."
Falwell says he is a bit perplexed why people are so quick to question the background of everyone who speaks at their university.
"Liberty is to evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is to Catholics and Brigham Young is to Mormons. I don't think Obama giving the commencement speech at Notre Dame would be a big deal so it's interesting to see people surprised Gov. Romney would address Liberty's graduates."
Falwell confirmed that it was his idea to invite Gov. Romney to deliver this year's commencement address. He also said the decision to invite both the baccalaureate and commencement speakers is completely at his discretion.
"I sent a letter to Mark DeMoss who is one of our trustees and an adviser to Gov. Romney," said Falwell. "After thinking about it for a few days, Mark felt it was a great idea and suggested I extend the formal invitation."
The school's original plan was to have two speakers deliver the commencement message, much like neighboring Virginia Tech is doing this year.
"The first speaker we invited is one of the nation's brightest female executives, but as it turned out, her company had a policy of not allowing her to share the stage with a candidate or elected official, so she had to decline our invitation," Falwell explained.
He would not release the name of the person, but said she would more than likely be invited to address next year's graduates.
Falwell also downplayed the controversy being played out in the media about students and alumni who have expressed disappointment over the decision to invite Romney since he is a Mormon and not an evangelical Christian.
"For every complaint my office has received, we've heard from far more who are supportive and excited about Gov. Romney's visit. There is no speaker we've had in years past that has pleased everyone and I expect it will be no different in the years ahead."
The chancellor also said that while most people are expecting Romney to give a political speech on why evangelicals should vote for him, he hopes that is not the case.
"The speakers that students and faculty appreciate the most are the ones who challenge our students," Falwell said. "I anticipate Gov. Romney will do just that and my suggestion would be for him to avoid politics altogether. The focus needs to be on the accomplishment of our graduates."
When asked if Liberty had invited President Obama to speak, Falwell said they had done so previously and plan to do so prior to November.
"We have extended one invitation to President Obama but he chose to send a surrogate instead," said Falwell. "But I can assure you the president will be given another opportunity to visit Liberty before the election in November. I know our students will look forward to his remarks as well."