Coming just a few days after President Obama embraced gay marriage, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's commencement speech at Liberty University emphasized the strength and power that comes from religious faithfulness. “Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning,” Romney told the Liberty graduating class.
When Romney addressed the 2010 graduating class at Groton School, the elite private boarding school in Massachusetts, it was a different message. He implored graduates to find the courage to question social and political orthodoxy and left references to religion and Christianity largely out.
“People at the top don’t always know as much as they think they know,” Romney said in 2010, according to a reprint in the Groton alumni magazine. “It’s not a liberal thought. It’s a conservative thought. Question authority, even if it’s usually right.”
He continued, “The observation, that the conventional wisdom may be incorrect, that the authorities may have it wrong, has been a very important factor in the degree of success I have enjoyed in business or in public service and particularly, in my personal life."
That's in contrast to his message to the 2012 class from the Christian school in Virginia, where he celebrated their readiness to "leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor." At Groton, Romney emphasized the need for analytical flexibility, noting in particular that truisms that were considered academic gospel when he was a student simply “turned out not to be so.”
“I learned in science that the planet was cooling and that we were facing the return of an ice age,” he said in 2010. “Politically, I learned that Detroit was about to become a model city for the entire nation.”
This was not the only reference to climate change in the 2010 speech. Romney also mentioned that within forty years in America, “I believe we will free ourselves from oil and keep the planet from melting down.”
As a testament to his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, Romney offered the example of his decision at Bain Capital to an early backer of office supply store Staples — though with more familiarity than usual in front of the Groton crowd as he referenced “Will Stemberg ’10’s father,” Staples co-founder Tom Stemberg.
That sense of shared experience shows up throughout Romney’s address to the boarding school class. He mentioned his time at Michigan’s Cranbrook School, which he called “an Episcopal school that was not unlike Groton.” That came after Romney opened with a joke about a misunderstanding with a farmer to show how "you have to be careful not to let your superior education go to your heads.”
But the two commencement addresses are not strictly contradictory. To both audiences, Romney depicted himself as a man who, on the one hand, believes in casting aside old assumptions when new facts dispute them, while standing on private principles worthy of fierce protection from the judgments of others.
And both speeches hinge on very similar descriptions of America’s essential character — or "culture," as Romney called it.
“What is it about America’s culture that has led us to become the most powerful nation in history? I believe it includes the value we attach to education, to hard work, to family formation, to our willingness to take risks, to our innovativeness, to our pioneering nature,” Romney said at Groton 2010. “And, not incidentally, to our inclination to question authority.”
Two years later at Liberty University, the Republican presidential candidate described the country's foundations in the same way.
“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 family," Romney said.
In 2012, though, Romney emphasized the certitude of those priorities and their unchanging nature over time — which led right up to his applause line defending marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.
At Groton in 2010, Romney allowed more nuance.
“Usually what authority says is spot on,” he said. “But not always.”