Christian Liberty?

May 16, 2012

On Saturday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke at Liberty University, a prominent conservative evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell and now led by one of his sons. The speech represents the continuing problems Romney has in the campaign--even though he is the presumptive nominee and should be focused on the general election, he is still trying to win over a key Republican base. In essence, he is still trying to win the primary during the general election. The fact that Romney felt the need to take a pilgrimage to Liberty is a clear sign of the importance of confessional politics. In my book on confessional politics, I described a similar effort by Senator John McCain who shifted from attacking Falwell during the 2000 presidential campaign to literally embracing Falwell in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential campaign. Here are a few excerpts from Romney's speech:

Your generosity of spirit humbles me. The welcoming spirit of Liberty is a tribute to the gracious Christian example of your founder. ... Today we remember him as a courageous and big-hearted minister of the Gospel who never feared an argument, and never hated an adversary. Jerry deserves the tribute he would have treasured most, as a cheerful, confident champion for Christ. ... Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning. That said, your values will not always be the object of public admiration. In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Christianity is not the faith of the complacent, the comfortable or of the timid. It demands and creates heroic souls like Wesley, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, John Paul the Second, and Billy Graham. Each showed, in their own way, the relentless and powerful influence of the message of Jesus Christ. May that be your guide. ... Central to America's rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life. ... All that you have heard here at Liberty University – about trusting in God and in His purpose for each of us–makes for more than a good sermon. It makes for a good life. ... It's normal, and sometimes even the smallest glimpses of the Lord's work in our lives can reawaken our hearts.
Romney's speech is full of themes common in our age of confessional politics. He did not explicitly mention his Mormon faith, but he did briefly admit that he and his audience were "[p]eople of different faiths." Yet, despite that difference, Romney demonstrated--as he has before--that he is still willing to try and meet the rhetorical expectations of evangelicals. Liberty's invitation to Romney, which sparked some complaints from some Liberty students and alumni, fits with their tradition of often being more political than Christian in their decisions to promote and recognize prominent conservative speakers. Romney has helped solidify Liberty's political importance and could benefit from the political activities of Liberty and its leader (who has been involved in efforts to defeat President Barack Obama).

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