RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ended a week consumed by the debate over same-sex marriage by delivering a commencement address at the evangelical Liberty University. Romney struggled to win over evangelical Christians and social conservatives during the GOP presidential primaries. But now that he's the presumptive nominee, Romney and evangelicals are trying to find a way to coexist. His deeply religious speech yesterday in Lynchburg, Virginia was another step in that direction. NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Canon Su(ph) lives here in Lynchburg and showed up hours before commencement just to hear Mitt Romney. He brought high expectations.
CANON SU: On some level, I think this is his address to the evangelical Christian community, you know. I think that he can sort of make his case why Christians should vote for him.
SHAPIRO: It's not an easy sell, as graduating senior Brandon O'Bluskie(ph) describes.
BRANDON O'BLUSKIE: At the student body, there was some controversy over whether Romney was an appropriate as a Mormon at an evangelical university. But I am honored that he is speaking to us.
SHAPIRO: The concerns about Romney go beyond his religion. People doubt his conservative authenticity and they worry about his record as Massachusetts governor. Campaign advisor Mark DeMoss, who serves on Liberty University's board, acknowledged and dismissed those concerns as he introduced Romney.
MARK DEMOSS: Now, it seems many people want a president they will agree with on everything. And if that's your standard, perhaps you should run yourself.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHAPIRO: Yet, that did not seem to be the prevailing standard in the crowd here. Across more than a dozen interviews with graduates and their parents, the overwhelming sentiment was one shared by Susanna Short of Baltimore.
SUSANNA SHORT: I don't especially follow his religion but I believe he's a good man.
SHAPIRO: Is he conservative enough for you?
SHORT: In my opinion, not quite, but I can handle what he's doing better than what we have now.
SHAPIRO: President Obama is a strong incentive driving these voters into Romney's arms. And if Short had any doubts, the president's endorsement of gay marriage banished them.
SHORT: It's wrong. I have nothing more to say about that. It's wrong. It's in the bible. It's wrong.
SHAPIRO: Romney mentioned that issue once and received the longest standing ovation of the speech.
MITT ROMNEY: Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.
SHAPIRO: But there was nothing more controversial than that. And in fact, that was the closest the speech came to overt politics. Instead, Romney spoke for 20 minutes about the value of a life guided by Christian faith.
ROMNEY: The best advice I know to give is to give those worldly things your best but never your all. Reserve the ultimate hope for the only one who can grant it.
SHAPIRO: Romney rarely speaks so frankly about religion, and this address was much longer than a typical Romney speech. He mentioned Christ several times. He acknowledged that his religion is different, though he never used the word Mormon.
ROMNEY: 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. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service.
SHAPIRO: He described faith as a burden and a privilege, saying the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Professor Mark Rozell of George Mason University says just coming here was probably enough to clear the bar.
MARK ROZELL: Romney being at Liberty University is symbolically important and it does in a sense give him a seal of approval from the religious right.
SHAPIRO: If Romney gets credit for just showing up, then the religious content of the speech gives him extra credit. After the address, social conservative leader Tony Perkins - no fan of Mitt Romney's in the past - put out a statement saying the invitation to speak at Liberty's commencement was a tremendous opportunity, quote, "and Mr. Romney seized it." Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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