Controversy and confusion surrounded Liberty University’s announcement that Governor Mitt Romney would be the keynote speaker at its 39th Commencement ceremony. The decision was immediately labeled a political move by local and national media. Liberty students took to Facebook and boycotting in order to protest the decision. Questions of whether Liberty was compromising on its fundamental principles, whether it was legitimizing Mormon theology, or whether this signalled political support for Romney from LU administration, all became topics of debate. I found myself defending both Mitt Romney and Liberty’s administration, on Facebook pages and on Lynchburg’s local ABC station WSET. I also wrote a rather lengthy article that can be found on this blog. Mitt Romney is a nationally known person, so it’s no surprise that there was no shortage of opinions on this matter.
When I walked out onto Liberty University’s football field, surrounded by over 6,000 of my peers all dressed in the regalia, as well as 25,000 guests, I wasn’t surprised to sense some tension in the air. CNN and other news outlets had already published stories on the controversy, and I knew they would find a few in the vast crowd who would protest the school’s decision in front of news cameras. I somehow found my parents in the vast crowd, waved, and found a seat. I waited anxiously for the speech that had been the topic of conversations since mid-April.
But before Romney spoke a word to the 30,000 in attendance and hundreds of thousands more watching online, Mark DeMoss gave a stirring introduction. DeMoss is an Evangelical longtime donor to Liberty University, which is the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world with over 80,000 enrolled in its residential and online programs. DeMoss has also been an adviser and friend of Romney’s for the past six years. In his introduction, he described his relationship with Romney and his family. “There’s a difference between knowing about someone and knowing them,” said DeMoss. To emphasize his point, DeMoss asserted that, “Over the years, we have prayed together, shared Scripture together, and talked about life together. And here is what I found: I do not have two better friends than Mitt and Ann Romney.”
It was as if DeMoss was trying to cut through the public perception of Romney as a robot politician and to introduce, to the mostly Evangelical audience, the person Mitt Romney, not the politician. It was then that I realized that although I was familiar with stories of Romney’s heart and service, though I do not know him personally, the vast majority of Evangelicals know him only as what the media has labeled him: a Mormon, Republican politician. Today, I realized, might be bigger than I could know.
As DeMoss continued to speak, Romney appeared to be getting emotional as he sat waiting for his time to speak.
“I trust him,” DeMoss said with conviction. “I trust him to do the right thing, to do the moral thing, to do what’s best for our country. I trust his character, his integrity, his moral compass, his judgment, and his perfect decency. Finally, I trust his values, for I am convinced they mirror my own.”
Clearly, DeMoss believes that Mitt Romney is someone worthy of respect and counts him as one of his most trusted friends, and he wanted to help ease the concerns that some Evangelicals have. Before DeMoss could return to his seat, Romney stood and embraced him.
I wondered what Governor Romney would say. Although the administration would present him with an honorary degree, he had earned three previously, including two Masters degrees: He graduated with honors from Harvard University with MBA and law degrees. Perhaps he would speak from his college experiences. Or maybe he would reflect on his 25 years in the private sector, in which he built a fortune for himself and others by taking on businesses that were failing, addressing the problems, and turning those failures into successes. Perhaps he would point to his experience in fixing the 2002 Winter Olympics as a testament to overcoming great obstacles. Maybe he would talk about taking on a secular culture with stories of how he confronted the liberal establishment in Massachusetts and won. Or would he reflect on what he considers his greatest achievement: raising his five sons with his wife of 43 years, Ann. Surely this wouldn’t be a political speech as some feared. Or would it?
But when Mitt Romney stepped up to that podium, he did exactly what he should have–he made it about the graduates. “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 Who you will serve. Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence.”
He reminded us of our mission, and he acknowledged the difficulties ahead while expressing hope in our future. “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 the timid. It demands and creates heroic souls.”
He emphasized service, love, family, and hard work. “Moral certainty, clear standards, and commitment to moral ideals will set you apart in a world that is searching for meaning.” In just 19 minutes, he put the lives of 6,000 attending graduates accompanied by some 25,000 guests, all in perspective. And, I believe he did something even more important: he won our trust. Although he garnered several standing ovations and more than a dozen rounds of applause, one simple line won him the most raucous reaction: “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” The stadium’s occupants jumped to their feet with hoots and hollers, many knowing quite well that President Obama had just days ago told the world he had changed his mind and was now in favor of legalizing homosexual marriage.
Romney quickly moved on to trusting God with our lives. “All you have heard 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.” He spoke from his own personal life, noting that often we will have to choose between professional life and family life. “I never once regretted missing a business opportunity to spend time with my family.” Later, he would again affirm the conviction that the eternal outweighs the temporal. “The best advice I know is to give those worldly things your best, but never your all. Reserve the ultimate hope for the only One who can grant it.”
After it was over, I stood and made my way to the stadium’s exits along with everyone else. The graduates were abuzz with Romney’s speech. “Mitt Romney seems like an amazing person,” I overheard one young lady say. “He’s going to be a great President,” another graduate said. “I’m glad he made it about us,” one young man said. That’s when I realized: Even though these graduates disagreed vehemently with Romney on theology, they recognized that, more often than not, they are going to agree with him.
Like him, we stand for our first freedom: the freedom of religion. Like him, we stand for traditional marriage. We stand, together, on the side of life. We stand, together, in shared values and worldview. We both recognize that God, not government, is the giver of all good things, including freedom. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder when it comes to putting God and the people in our lives ahead of worldly responsibilities. We believe in personal responsibility and hard work and character.
That’s why Mark DeMoss could call him his most trusted friend. That’s why Jerry Falwell Jr. introduced him as “the next President of the United States.” And that’s why I can count him as one of my great heroes.
Liberty University’s official video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uT2HAluw63Q&feature=share
CSPAN video with introduction by Mark DeMoss: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muHK5Hqgar8&feature=related
Remarks in Text
For the graduates, this moment marks a clear ending and a clear beginning. The task set before you four years ago is now completed in full. To the class of 2012: Well done, and congratulations. Some of you may have taken a little longer than four years to complete your studies. One graduate has said that he completed his degree in only two terms: Clinton’s and Bush’s.
In some ways, it is fitting that I share this distinction with Truett Cathy. The Romney campaign comes to a sudden stop when we spot a Chick-fil-A. Your chicken sandwiches were our comfort food through the primary season, and there were days that we needed a lot of comforting. So, Truett, thank you and congratulations on your well-deserved honor today.
There are some people here who are even more pleased than the graduates. Those would be the parents. Their years of prayers, devotion, and investment have added up to this joyful achievement. And with credit to Congressman Dick Armey: The American Dream is not owning your own home, it is getting your kids out of the home you own.
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches. And let’s just say that not everybody has achieved as much in these last four years as you have. That’s a theme for another day. But two observations. First, even though job opportunities are scarce in this economy, it is not for nothing that you have spent this time preparing.
Jerry Falwell, Senior, long ago observed that “You do not determine a man’s greatness by his talent or wealth, as the world does, but rather by what it takes to discourage him.” America needs your skill and talent. If we take the right course, we will see a resurgence in the American economy that will surprise the world, and that will open new doors of opportunity for those who are prepared as you are.
Of course, what the next four years might hold for me is yet to be determined. But I will say that things are looking up, and I take your kind hospitality today as a sign of good things to come. I consider it a great life honor to address you today. Your generosity of spirit humbles me. The welcoming spirit of Liberty is a tribute to the gracious Christian example of your founder. In his 73 years of life, Dr. Falwell left a big mark. For nearly five decades he shared that walk with his good wife Macel. It’s wonderful to see her today. The calling Jerry answered was not an easy one. 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. I will always remember his cheerful good humor and selflessness. Several years ago, in my home, my wife and I were posing for a picture together with him. We wanted him to be in the center of the photo, but he insisted that Ann be in the middle, with he and I on the sides. He explained, by pointing to me and himself, “You see, Christ died between two thieves.”
Maybe the most confident step Jerry ever took was to open the doors of this school 41 years ago. He believed that Liberty might become one of the most respected Christian universities anywhere on earth. And so it is today. He believed, even when the first graduating class consisted of 13 students, that year after year young Christians would be drawn to such a university in ever-greater numbers.
And here you are. 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. 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.
You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal. Harvard historian David Landes devoted his lifelong study to understanding why some civilizations rise, and why others falter. His conclusion: Culture makes all the difference. Not natural resources, not geography, but what people believe and value. Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life. The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.
The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor.
Culture matters. As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.
The protection of religious freedom has also become a matter of debate. It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government. But from the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution.
And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action. Religious freedom opens a door for Americans that is closed to too many others around the world. But whether we walk through that door, and what we do with our lives after we do, is up to us.
Someone once observed that the great drama of Christianity is not a crowd shot, following the movements of collectives or even nations. The drama is always personal, individual, unfolding in one’s own life. We’re not alone in sensing this. Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life.
And, in the way of lessons learned, by hitting the mark or by falling short, I can tell you this much for sure. 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. So many things compete for our attention and devotion. That doesn’t stop as you get older. We are all prone, at various turns, to treat the trivial things as all-important, the all-important things as trivial, and little by little lose sight of the one thing that endures forever. No person I have ever met, not even the most righteous or pure of heart, has gone without those times when faith recedes in the busy-ness of life. It’s normal, and sometimes even the smallest glimpses of the Lord’s work in our lives can reawaken our hearts. They bring us back to ourselves – and, better still, to something far greater than ourselves.
What we have, what we wish we had – ambitions fulfilled, ambitions disappointed … investments won, investments lost … elections won, elections lost – these things may occupy our attention, but they do not define us. And each of them is subject to the vagaries and serendipities of life. Our relationship with our Maker, however, depends on none of this. It is entirely in our control, for He is always at the door, and knocks for us. Our worldly successes cannot be guaranteed, but our ability to achieve spiritual success is entirely up to us, thanks to the grace of God.
The best advice I know is to give those worldly things your best but never your all, reserving the ultimate hope for the only one who can grant it. Many a preacher has advised the same, but few as memorably as Martin Luther King, Jr. “As a young man,” he said, “with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow. But to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
In this life, the commitments that come closest to forever are those of family. My Dad, George Romney, was a CEO, a governor, and a member of the President’s Cabinet. My wife Ann asked him once, “What was your greatest accomplishment?” Without a moment’s pause, he said, “Raising our four kids.” Ann and I feel the same way about our family. I have never once regretted missing a business opportunity so that I could be with my children and grandchildren. Among the things in life that can be put off, being there when it matters most isn’t one of them. As C.S. Lewis is said to have remarked, “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose, and that is to support the ultimate career.”
Promotions often mark the high points in a career, and I hope I haven’t seen my last. But sometimes the high points come in unexpected ways. I was asked to help rescue the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. I’m embarrassed now to recall that when this opportunity was first presented to me, I dismissed it out of hand. I was busy, I was doing well, and, by the way, my lack of athletic prowess did not make the Olympics a logical step. In fact, after I had accepted the position, my oldest son called me and said, “Dad, I’ve spoken to the brothers. We saw the paper this morning. We want you to know there’s not a circumstance we could have conceived of that would put you on the front page of the sports section.”
The Olympics were not a logical choice, but it was one of the best and most fulfilling choices of my life. Opportunities for you to serve in meaningful ways may come at inconvenient times, but that will make them all the more precious. 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 best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God’s love into every life – people like the late Chuck Colson. Not long ago, Chuck recounted a story from his days just after leaving prison. He was assured by people of influence that, even with a prison record, a man with his connections and experience could still live very comfortably. They would make some calls, get Chuck situated, and set him up once again as an important man. His choice at that crossroads would make him, instead, a great man.
The call to service is one of the fundamental elements of our national character. It has motivated every great movement of conscience that this hopeful, fair-minded country of ours has ever seen. Sometimes, as Dr. Viktor Frankl observed in a book for the ages, it is not a matter of what we are asking of life, but rather what life is asking of us. How often the answer to our own troubles is to help others with theirs. In all of these things – faith, family, work, and service –the choices we make as Americans are, in other places, not choices at all.
For so many on this earth, life is filled with orders, not options, right down to where they live, the work they do, and how many children the state will permit them to have. All the more reason to be grateful, this and every day, that we live in America, where the talents God gave us may be used in freedom.
At this great Christian institution, you have all learned a thing or two about these gifts and the good purposes they can serve. They are yours to have and yours to share. Sometimes, your Liberty education will set you apart, and always it will help direct your path. And as you now leave, and make for new places near and far, I hope for each one of you that your path will be long and life will be kind. The ideals that brought you here … the wisdom you gained here … and the friends you found here – may these blessings be with you always, wherever you go.