Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received applause from a crowd at Liberty University in Virginia when he stated that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Delivering a commencement address at the country's largest Christian school, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Saturday defended traditional marriage and said there is common ground between his Mormon faith and that of the largely evangelical crowd.
Speaking to more than 30,000 packed into Liberty University's football stadium, Romney drew his loudest applause from his proclamation: "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
But it was one of the few specifics the former Massachusetts governor gave at the deeply religious campus.
Liberty's decision to invite Romney, a Mormon, to deliver the commencement at the Christian school founded by Baptist Minister Jerry Falwell drew criticism from some on campus who feel Romney's beliefs contradict the school's teachings. The university offers a theology course that describes Mormonism as a cult.
Romney only alluded to his faith, telling the crowd: "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, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."
The candidate's religion was never directly addressed, but the school's chancellor and son of its founder, Jerry Falwell Jr., seemed to scratch the surface of some of this community's concerns in his introduction of Romney.
"My father often preached that Christians should vote for the candidate whose positions on the political issues are most closely aligned with their own," said Falwell. "Not the candidate who shares his or her faith or theology. We are, after all, electing a commander-in-chief, not a pastor or religious leader."
While many in the audience were impressed by the 20-minute address, especially Romney's hardline stance in support of traditional marriage, there was also acknowledgment that his Mormonism will make it more difficult for the Republican to fire up young evangelical voters.
Members if the Class of 2012 frequently cited that, personally, religion did not disqualify anyone from the White House. But many were also quick to add that they knew others who did not share their view.
"I think that he did a really great job, considering he came in front of thousands of people that he knew disagreed with certain things," said Sara Colein, who graduated Saturday. Still, the Maryland native was quick to acknowledge Romney's problem with the crowd here is "the fact that he is a Mormon and certain differences we have when it comes to Jesus Christ."
Stephen Jones, also a member of the Class of 2012 said, "I think the one thing that is going to be the glaring problem is going to be the deity of Jesus Christ."
Still, Jones, added, "I think that, if you compare him to Obama, I think yes, we'll side with him a lot better than we will Obama."
Speaking at Liberty University is a right of passage for conservative politicians, who come here to pay homage to an important block of the Republican Party. Former GOP presidential hopefuls Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain visited the school in the fall, each touting the importance of God and reinforcing their commitment to the evangelical values preached at the university.
But leading up to Saturday's address, Romney advisers made clear the candidate would not go in depth on the issues. "It is a speech for the graduates and their parents," one adviser said.
And though it had more political implications than his campaign originally let on, it was, largely, a graduation speech.
"Today, thanks to what you have gained here, you leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor. You know what you believe. You know who you are. And you know whom you will serve. Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence, but it will be among the most prized qualities from your education here," said Romney. "Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning."