Is Romney Going to Make Peace With Evangelicals in Liberty Commencement Speech?

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is scheduled to make what some hope to be a watershed speech to evangelicals in a commencement address to Liberty University graduates next month. But some evangelicals, both students and alumni, are still skeptical.

According to one evangelical leader, the opportunity for Romney to reach out to Christian conservatives during the May 12 commencement ceremony could have national ramifications and allow Romney to show that he truly cares about the issues important to them.

"They may not warmly applaud him and may continue to express differences and clearly there are differences theologically between Mormons and Christians, but here's an opportunity for Mitt Romney to talk about what he has in common with evangelicals and that is on the value issues," Family Research Council's Tony Perkins told CNN's Starting Point.

"As Christians we can disagree strongly but we show respect and I think they will show respect for Mitt Romney," said Perkins.

Romney isn't the first presidential candidate that has addressed the Lynchburg, Va., graduating class as he is following in the footsteps of then Governor and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and former President George H.W. Bush.

But unlike Reagan and Bush who could claim at least some connection to evangelical Christianity, Romney is a Mormon and a former bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We are delighted that Governor Romney will join us to celebrate Commencement with Liberty's 2012 graduates," said Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., in a statement after Romney's speech was announced in mid-April.

Yet some students and Liberty alumni are none too thrilled about Romney's campus visit and for the obvious reason that he has not convinced them that he will fight for their issues.

The 40-year-old Christian university has a total enrollment of 82,500. However, only 12,500 attend classes on the school's 6,500-acre campus. The remaining 70,000 students like 22-year-old Oyindamola Bankole, are part of Liberty's growing online student enrollment.

Just like Liberty students who live a more traditional student lifestyle, Bankole feels the school is as much her university as others. Yet because of her displeasure with the decision to invite Romney given the Baptist school's huge differences with the foundational teachings of Mormonism, she is choosing to propose walking across the stage May 2013 even though she is graduating this year.

"Even though we're online students, it's still our graduation," Bankole told CNN. "The Liberty University Online students are going to be flying in, renting rooms in hotels, and going to the same graduation, so why does our opinion not matter as much?" asked Bankole.

One person in particular who has an interest in the issue from both sides is public relations guru Mark DeMoss. His Atlanta, Ga.-based firm handles the accounts of the Rev. Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, the late Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship and Liberty University.

More importantly, he is a Liberty graduate and Board of Trustee member and one of Romney's most influential Christian advisers. DeMoss was quick to point out that Romney will not be the first Mormon to address one of Liberty's graduating classes.

"I remember the first time [Jerry] Falwell, Sr. decided to use a commencement speaker that was not evangelical because it was controversial to some at the time," DeMoss said as he referenced talk show host Glenn Beck's address several years ago.

"Mitt Romney has a message that is resonating with millions of Americans and I think he will appeal to a large majority of Christians as we move toward the November elections," DeMoss told CP in an interview earlier this month.

Liberty's baccalaureate service will take place on Friday, May 11 and feature Dr. Luis Palau, an international Christian evangelist who has close ties with the Rev. Billy Graham.

Free CP Newsletters

Join over 250,000 others to get the top stories curated daily, plus special offers!


Most Popular

More In Politics