Liberty's Evangelical Students Give Mormon Romney a Warm Reception

(Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

LYNCHBURG, Va. - When Jacob Pearce sat down in his folding chair near the 50-yard line on Liberty University's football field, he said he was holding his breath.

Pearce told ABC News his nerves weren't due to his impending graduation, but instead because of the chosen commencement speaker: presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

"I was holding my breath when they announced him," Pearce told ABC News. "I was just hoping there weren't any 'boos.'"

Pearce's fear - which was not realized here today - was shared by many of his classmates, more than a dozen of whom were interviewed by ABC News. Most, like Pearce, had resoundingly positive things to say about Romney's address, regardless of their pre-event jitters.

Many shared concerns that their classmates wouldn't be respectful of the politician's Mormon faith, the values of which differ greatly from those of many of the students enrolled at the evangelical university.

"I was worried he was going to get a bad reception," Pearce said. "But it was really good. [Romney] steers away from really specific religious things."

Romney never mentioned his Mormon faith by name during his speech, instead referencing broadly the differences of his faith and those 30,000 audience members packed into the stadium, remarking, "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."

The answer, Romney said, was to "meet in service" and "shared moral convictions."

Aides to Romney had prefaced the speech by warning that it "wasn't a speech about Mormonism," adding that the former governor would talk about the "big picture of how Judeo Christian traditions" can make for a good life.

Mary Hunter, another student who graduated today, shared some of Pearce's reservations about the speech, but described Romney's speech as "awesome."

"I know not everyone as excited about him being here, but I was one of the ones really got into it," she said.

Hunter said that she doesn't have a "lot of feelings" about Mormonism, and "we all worship the same God in my opinion."

"He is very strong in his faith and we need someone who is going to be strong in their faith to lead this country," she said.

Sarah Colein, another graduate, said she had been "curious" as to how Romney would handle their differing faiths during the speech, and thought he did a "good job" reaching a balance.

"Yeah, there are things I don't agree with necessarily, but I think he did a good job," she said. "I was definitely curious as to the way he was going to approach the university, knowing that there are certain differences we have, like certain beliefs we disagree with."

Graduate Lindsey Burnette described Romney as "Christ-like," and fellow graduate Daniel Rodriguez said he believes Romney has "moral grounds that are important to the evangelical society," both offering the candidate strong endorsements among a population he's straining to appeal to.

A few audience members did say that they would have preferred the university to have chosen someone other than Romney to give the address, among them parent John Willis, who said he thought the speech was "calculated."

"I think it was calculated. He said the right things," said Willis, who said he voted for Rick Santorum in the Virginia primary. "There was a lot of political speech, but that's to be expected for this situation."

Willis said his view of the candidate was buoyed by his affirmation that he believes marriage is a union between a man and a woman, a viewpoint Romney reasserted during his speech here, sparking a standing ovation from the crowd.

"I would have preferred [the university] to get someone more closely aligned with the Baptist directives as a speaker rather than Gov. Romney," Willis said. "But I'm leaving with a positive new respect for him."

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...