Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney assured the thousands of conservative Christians gathered for the graduation ceremony at Liberty University, the school founded by evangelical icon Jerry Falwell, that he stands with them on traditional marriage.
"Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman," Mr. Romney said, sparking applause from the more than 30,000 people in attendance.
The former Massachusetts governor was the second Mormon to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the country.
His appearance came days after President Obama sparked an uproar by announcing his support for same-sex marriage – opening the door for Mr. Romney to reach out to a key slice of the Republican electorate that has been slow to warm to him.
His comments sparked an immediate backlash from the head of a Republican gay rights group, which accused Mr. Romney of pandering to "big government theocrats" in an attempt to win over conservatives who have reservations about his commitment to limited government principles.
"If Governor Romney hopes he can alleviate these concerns and unite the conservative movement by grossly engaging in the culture wars, as he did today at Liberty University, he is sadly mistaken," said Jimmy LaSalvia, Executive Director of GOProud.
Mr. Romney used the nearly 19-minute address to focus on the vital role that faith plays in his life, while taking a a few thinly veiled swipes at what he sees as President Obama's failures and attacks on religious freedoms.
"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," he said, in an apparent allusion to the recent dust-up over the Obama administration's decision to require institutions with a religious affiliation to provide insurance that covers contraceptives.
"There is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action," he said.
Mr. Romney struggled to win over evangelical Christians in the Republican primary contests, where they tended to swing their support behind former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – both Catholics.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich failed to get on the ballot in Virginia, where Mr. Romney won the primary. But Mr. Romney still lost the polling precinct at Liberty University to Texas Rep. Ron Paul by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
On Saturday, he worked to strengthen his ties to the community, telling the crowd that "our Judeo-Christian tradition" has been central to America culture and the nation's rise to global leadership.
"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," he said, before pointing to a Brookings Institution study that found that just two percent of the people who graduate high school fall into poverty.
"But, if those things are absent, 76 percent 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," he said.
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