When the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, many fundamentalist pastors were appalled by his decision to wade into the muck of politics.
Even more shocking, Falwell said this would be an interfaith project from the get-go, one open to conservatives in many flocks -- including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The goal was to focus on the moral convictions that united believers in different faiths, not the scriptures, creeds and theology that separated them.
Clearly, Mitt Romney or a campaign staffer did his history homework before the candidate arrived at Liberty University to embrace the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., and address the class of 2012, as well as -- via mass media -- millions of conservative Christians who have shunned him, or worse.
"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," said Romney, in an address that included many references to faith and family. "Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."
Over in the faculty section, this "people of different faiths" passage hit home for the well-known author and Christian apologist Gary Habermas, who has taught at Liberty for 31 years and currently leads its philosophy department.
"I'm surprised that he said that, that he chose that combination of words," said Habermas. "You see, he's not really talking to our people, alone. He's talking to the whole Southern evangelical presence that he needs at the polls this fall. He knows they need to hear from him on this issue."
In particular, it was significant that Romney acknowledged that some theological disputes are so basic -- such as disagreements about the nature of God -- that the creeds of ancient Christianity divide Mormons from Trinitarian Christians.
"I was surprised that he was so clear in pointing out this fact -- that we are different, that our theologies are so different," said Habermas. "He needs to say that, to acknowledge that, before he can go on to say that we can still work together."
Obviously, Romney knew that his audience included many who were upset that he was delivering the commencement address, said the Rev. Tal Davis, who for many years led interfaith evangelism projects for the Southern Baptist Convention. It was smart for Romney to gently acknowledge this and, thus, preempt some critics.
"I thought he was refreshingly candid," said Davis. "He wasn't trying to ignore or gloss over the obvious. He was saying, 'I'm not here representing my church. Our faiths are different. I'm running for president. Let's move on.' "
The candidate certainly knew to quote or praise heroes that would appeal to his listeners, including John Wesley, William Wilberforce, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Chuck Colson and, of course, the late Jerry Falwell. He also alluded to recent church-state conflicts, at one point drawing sustained applause with the simple statement: "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
The times are so tense, noted Romney, that 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. ...
"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."
Liberty University's founder would have applauded those words, as well as the fact that a Mormon leader delivered them, said Habermas. While the Moral Majority organization no longer exists, some of its strategies have become part of America's political landscape.
"Mormons were always a crucial part of that coalition, from day one," said Habermas. "Everyone knew that we had our differences, but we were still trying to stand shoulder to shoulder. ... The key is that everyone needs to know that we are not trying to blur or combine our theologies."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.