For Liberty students, graduation a moment of celebration, with or without Romney’s speech
Over 14,000 students graduated from Liberty University in 2012. Around 6,000 attended the commencement ceremony.
May 12th, 2012
02:14 PM ET

For Liberty students, graduation a moment of celebration, with or without Romney’s speech

By Dan Merica, CNN

Lynchburg, Virginia (CNN) – When Michelle Berry got up this morning, she wasn’t thinking about Mitt Romney. For her, this day was a long time coming.

Berry, a 48-year old senior at Liberty University, has dreamed of college graduation for a long time. After finishing high school 30-years ago, Berry got her associates degree in nursing. Until today, a bachelor’s degree has eluded her.

“For me personally, it is all about that fact that this is my day,” Berry said. “I earned it.”

Berry’s graduation, however, wasn’t your normal pomp-and-circumstance moment. Liberty’s 2012 commencement has been shrouded in controversy since the evangelical Christian university announced that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, would be the keynote speaker.

Berry expressed a feeling that was similar to what many Liberty students walking in today’s graduation told CNN. Most students said that today is their day and whether they support Romney, the graduation speaker does not change the fact that they have worked countless hours for this moment and can’t wait for their tassels from left to right.

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Donning decorated graduation caps and long, black gowns, many of today’s 6,000 graduates echoed Moore’s statement and the online hubbub that erupted over Romney’s selection was not on their minds.

“This has been a while coming, that is all this is really about,” said Leanzar Stockley, a student graduation with a bachelors in Christian Counseling. “I earned this and it is a success for my family and for myself.”

Stockley said he is neutral on Romney and hasn't been following politics much – “on purpose,” he said.

“Who is speaking, it doesn't really bother me too much,” Stockley said. “I am just happy to be here.”

Other students were excited to see Romney.

“I am personally thankful that he is here because I would rather have a potential president speak at my graduation than someone who is just a celebrity,” said graduating senior Jeanel Potts.

Potts will be leaving Lynchburg to work as a nurse at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. She said she disregarded those who had an issue with Romney speaking at commencement.

“I feel like there is a lot of contention, but a lot of it is from people who aren’t even walking,” Potts said. “If the people walking don’t have a problem with it, than other people shouldn't.”

Some graduates said that they hoped Romney would not use this event to talk about politics. Instead, they said, he should inspire the graduates and talk about his experience in the real world.

Romney did speak a great deal about his experiences in life, mentioning his time leading the Salt Lake Olympics, his time in the business community and, at times, his political aspirations.

“I’ve found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches,” Romney joked.

More than anything, though, his speech was deeply spiritual, mentioning the stress he puts on family and his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, a line the earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. He regularly cited the bible and other Christian figures, while also mentioning that his faith was different than some in 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,” Romney said. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”

At the end of his speech, Romney looked to inspire the students.

“Sometimes, your Liberty education will set you apart, and always it will help direct your path,” Romney said. “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.”

Mat Staver, dean of the Liberty Law School, said the speech would earn Romney points in the evangelical community.

“I think it will be a major boost for him within the evangelical community at large,” said Staver. “He didn't she away from the issues of importance.”

Staver continued: “It was really more a message of encouragement to our graduates about faith and about maintaining their faith and moral compass as they go out into the world.”

Tony Perkins, a graduate of Liberty University and president of the Family Research Council, congratulated Romney on his speech, stating in a press release that Romney had "picked up on the message that energized Rick Santorum's campaign."

"Today's address was a tremendous opportunity for Governor Mitt Romney to communicate to social conservatives... and Mr. Romney seized it by emphasizing the shared values he holds with evangelicals even while acknowledging theological differences," the release stated. "In his well-delivered speech, he accentuated the core values issues that are essential to a strong nation and of great importance to evangelicals."

Prior to commencement, though, a vocal group of people took to newspapers, Facebook and Twitter to protest Romney’s selection.

Over 700 comments were registered on the Liberty University Facebook page – many of which questioned why a university that teaches Mormonism is a cult, would select someone of that faith to address their students. “I can’t support Romney and I am happy I decided not to walk (in the commencement) this year,” wrote student Josh Bergmann.

In the Liberty Champion, the school's newspaper, one columnist wrote that Liberty University’s selection of Romney was “cause for concern.” “If Liberty were a secular institution, this would not be a big deal — but it is not,” read the column. “If Liberty wants to wear the Christian T-shirt, so to speak, then it needs to follow through with the guides set forth in the Bible.”

In response to the protest, Liberty University decided to delete the announcement from their Facebook page. Johnnie Moore, vice president of executive projects and spiritual programs, defended the decision.

In particular, Moore said in a statement that the students were primarily online students and “were not as familiar with Liberty University's traditions.” “Here [on campus], it wasn’t all that controversial,” Moore told CNN. “I don't think it was as controversial as some perceived it to be. It has actually been quite on the contrary. We have received tons of positive feed back.”

The negative sentiments that led up the Romney’s speech, however, were barely seen during his address. In large part, the crowd was receptive to Romney.

“I think it was safe, because he is of Mormon background, he did play it safe with his choice of words,” said Shelanne Jennings, a graduating senior with a bachelor's degree in journalism. “I may not agree with all that he says, but he did really point back to Christ and I think that is the most important thing.”

Standing near the stage, Vincent Valeriano was smiling to ear to ear while talking on the phone. The intercultural studies major stood with his mother, who also graduated from Liberty today.

“I think he did a great job,” said Valeriano. “It was very uplifting and encouraging.”

His mom beamed with pride after the ceremony, as did her son – around them families were hugging, celebrating and snapping photos. Students exchanged hugs and wished each other well. Many talked about plans for later tonight.

Romney had long left the lectern, on his way to continue with what will likely be a grueling campaign for the presidency. Students at Liberty remained on the field, reveling in their accomplishments and about their own future.

For them, today’s graduation was about their accomplishments and they were happy to leave it at that.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: 2012 Election • Christianity • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics

soundoff (55 Responses)
  1. PlagueDoc

    I suppose that if he plans to run a presidential campaign in which one of the main focuses is on family values, it makes sense to kick it off by giving a speech at a University founded by someone like Falwell who's relationship with his own mother was so solid, it was the subject of a well known ad campaign in 1983.

    May 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  2. clarke

    social issues have no place in Government, just as religion has no place in government. I understand the fine line between them. A leader has to serve all the people and we are all of different race, color and greed. Everyone needs to step back and view the entire picture, not just their special interest. We are losing sight of the real issues that people are facing everyday, such as food ,clothing, shelter,education, jobs, medicare, health care, abused child, energy, deficit, YOU GET THE PICTURE. We really need to work together and stop letting personal beliefs get in the way of a better life for All people. I have nothing against religion and beliefs, I have them myself. .

    May 13, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    May 13, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!.*!

      May 13, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  4. usatruth

    GAY and ABORTION are perfect BAITs TO GET VOTES for UNPATRIOTIC CORPORATIONS (131 Richest Families in USA).

    May 13, 2012 at 4:36 am |
  5. A Liburtee Stoodent

    I cuold uv gone to a reel coledge, but I chosed Liburtee!!! Gots my brane prepaired for bean a cutting edge Christian!

    May 13, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • Yes indeed

      The IQ of all those students in the picture would not even get to Gump. The dorkasaurus with the blue sunglasses has a IQ that is a negative number .

      May 13, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • An Actually Liberty Student (That Can Spell)

      I did go to a real college, accredited by all the major accrediting organizations that represent other major schools.
      I currently hold a Bachelors and a Masters degree and am working on my PhD. How many degrees do you have?
      Liberty University is a viable choice for student wishing to receive college education from a Biblical perspective. You are free to disagree, but do not imply that my school is any less real than another. If you think Christians are insensitive and intolerant, take a second to think about how this statement put you on that same level.

      May 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  6. Chipster

    ..."Today's address was a tremendous opportunity for Governor Mitt Romney to communicate to social conservatives... "
    And then the far right claims that secular colleges "brainwash" students with liberal ideas. Yes, secular colleges 'brainwash' students to think for themselves, research facts (including various religious doctrines), evaluate evidence, and base conclusions on silly things like science, mathematics, and logic. The fact that Liberty accuses Mormans of being members of a cult and then invites Romney to speak to its graduating class reveals that their true agenda has little to do with religion and more to do with political power and control. Perhaps more of a corporate agenda than a Christian agenda? Just sayin'

    May 12, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • usatruth

      I wish more people can see like you do. God, Bible, and Jesus DON'T discriminate, Republicans DO for the 131 "Unpatriotic" Rich Families, according to TED WARNER (the Founder of CNN).

      May 13, 2012 at 4:23 am |
  7. pastafaria

    The best part about Going to Liberty U. is that everyone who graduates with honors gets to go out behind the outhouse and have their first Campari with Jerry Falwell's granddaughter.

    May 12, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  8. Reality

    Some important points you were never taught:

    Dear Liberty students:

    – from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-

    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. ...

    The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

    : The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    "Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars."

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    "Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here's a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active "post-teeners": Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    "Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 's-ex.'" (It should be called the Bill Clinton Syndrome !!)

    Obviously, political leaders in both parties, Planned Parenthood, parents, the "stupid part of the USA" and the educational system have failed miserably on many fronts.

    The most effective forms of contraception, ranked by "Perfect use":

    1a. (Abstinence, 0% failure rate)
    1b. (Masturbation, mono or mutual, 0% failure rate)

    Followed by:
    One-month injectable and Implant (both at 0.05 percent)
    Vasectomy and IUD (Mirena) (both at 0.1 percent)
    The Pill, Three-month injectable, and the Patch (all at 0.3 percent)
    Tubal sterilization (at 0.5 percent)
    IUD (Copper-T) (0.6 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Post-ovulation) (1.0 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Symptothermal) and Male condom (both at 2.0 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Ovulation method) (3.0 percent)

    Every other method ranks below these, including Withdrawal (4.0), Female condom (5.0), Diaphragm (6.0), Periodic abstinence (calendar) (9.0), the Sponge (9.0-20.0, depending on whether the woman using it has had a child in the past), Cervical cap (9.0-26.0, with the same caveat as the Sponge), and Spermicides (18.0).

    May 12, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  9. alleygator

    When will Romney give a speech at a REAL University?

    May 12, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  10. Colin

    The 4 years of college is when most people's intellectual development is at its most accelerated. It is a pity that theses students have had four years of reinforcement of the mythological nonsense they were taught as children.

    Most will leave LU every bit as close minded and ignorant as they entered it and, unfortunately, now more proud of that fact.

    May 12, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • nope


      May 12, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Sad, but true. Perhaps prospective employers will evaluate their resumes and when they see the education section, they will shred them accordingly.

      May 12, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  11. Ron

    When is Willard going to declare Jesus his Lord and Savior???

    May 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  12. Ron

    LOL. Now, just plan on doubling your loan interest rates.

    May 12, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  13. mikstov33

    Unless the Wit wins, most in attendance will forget all about this day..

    May 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  14. kate

    This months Salt Lake City Magazine's cover story,"The Myth of Mitt". Read It! Again, he is not the person he says he is!

    May 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  15. Live and let live!

    Romney has built his fortune on the broken dreams of other people. He does not seem to have any empathy for the homeless, sick, poor, or anyone who is not like him. 50 years from now, Romney will be rembered for trying to use the Federal Government to force his religious beliefs on others. He will be rembered for trying to deny millions of Americans the basic right to liberty and the prusuit of happiness.

    May 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  16. RomneyOrGreece

    A fantastic speech from Romney. Four more years of deficit spending and we'll go the way of Greece

    May 12, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • NotFooledByDistractions

      You're obviously unaware that romneys budget and tax plans would add over $5 TRILLION to the deficit. Do a little research skippy.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • mike

      check your budget facts and then speak with a little knowledge not just like all Romney sheep

      May 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  17. Zaphod2010

    This is probably the largest crowd yet to hear the flip flopper speak. Unfortunately for him it was all about the students NOT him! Oh poor little rich bullyboy.

    May 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Tim

      He could help them out with how best to default on their student loans, though. He's an expert at picking the carcasses of debt-laden companies. Then again, his opinion might change from one student to the next.

      May 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • NotFooledByDistractions

      Romney is truly a horrible public speaker. Too much breathless eddie haskell and scared rabbit mannerisms for my taste. I wonder how many fell asleep this time around. His track record isn't so good with college students...he's like a human version of ambien.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • momoya

      I agree with Not Fooled.. No question he sucks at public speaking.

      May 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  18. Tom


    May 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    May 12, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • NotFooledByDistractions

      Yeah, it changes otherwise intelligent peoples brains to mush.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • nope

      @not fooled...

      May 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  20. Gus

    Nothing to celebrate there;a degree from Bible Thumper U isn't something to boast about. It just means you couldn't get into a real uni.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Hitchens

      The oldest inst itutions of higher knowledge in this country started as Christian universities.

      May 12, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Tom

      The best institions threw off their ties to the nonsense known as religion, and are now predominantly secular. The others don't deserve to be called universities.

      May 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Tom

      **institutions* *

      May 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Hitchens

      Harvard still has degrees in divinity. Not thrown too far are they?

      May 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • JFritz

      To stop the genuine study of religion would be foolhardy. Only when we realize the "made by committee" nature of our "holy" texts and the historial context from which they arose can we begin understanding who we are and what we really need to renew our spirits. REAL universities encourage that exploration; Liberty University belies its very name. Nothing else Romney has done so disgusts me as his pandering to ignorance.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • AGuest9

      True, JFritz. "Know thine enemy."

      May 12, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.