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Romney defends marriage and faith in Liberty University speech

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(Jae C. Hong/AP)

Mitt Romney doubled down on his position against same sex marriage, telling graduates at Liberty University Saturday that marriage between "one man and one woman" is an "enduring institution" that should be defended.

Coming just days after President Obama endorsed the right of gays and lesbians to marry, the comment earned Romney a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 30,000 people—the largest crowd Romney has ever addressed as a political candidate--but it was his only mention of the hot button social issue.

Instead, the presumptive Republican nominee used his commencement address at that evangelical university to emphasize the importance of faith and family—and take some slight digs at President Obama's handling of the country, though he didn't name his 2012 opponent.

"Lately, I've found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches. And let's just say that not everybody has achieved as much in these last four years as you have," Romney said. " But that's a theme for another day."

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Indeed, Romney touched only fleetingly on issues that could be potentially controversial. His visit to Liberty, a Christian university founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, was an overt appeal to social conservatives who have been wary about his White House bid. But his appearance had generated protests by some Liberty students, where the curriculum has described Romney's Mormon faith as a "cult."

Romney did not use his Saturday address to specifically defend his Mormon faith. But he did speak at length about the importance of faith in his own life—a riff that was clearly an attempt to discourage suspicion about his personal beliefs. He argued that people, no matter what they believe, could agree on faith and moral service to the country.

"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."

He argued that faith and belief in God was more important than "trivial things"—but acknowledged that he, like others, had occasionally lost sight of that. He urged the graduates to always turn back to faith.

"What we have, what we wish we had--ambitions fulfilled, ambitions disappointed; investments won, investments lost; elections won, elections lost--these things may occupy our attention, but they do not define us.  And each of them is subject to the vagaries and serendipities of life," Romney said. "Our relationship with our Maker, however, depends on none of this … The best advice I know is to give those worldly things your best but never your all, reserving the ultimate hope for the only one who can grant it."

While Romney aides insisted the former governor's remarks would not be a "policy" speech, he gave a shout out to his former rival Rick Santorum, saying that he agreed that America's greatness was defined by its "culture" and "values."  And he also argued for the protection of "religious freedom," saying it's 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," Romney said. "Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government. "

On a lighter note, Romney paid homage to Truett Cathy, the founder of the fast food chain Chick fil-A, who was given an honorary degree just moments before Romney took the podium.

"The Romney campaign comes to a sudden stop when we spot a Chick-fil-A," the Republican candidate said. "Your chicken sandwiches were our comfort food through the primary season, and there were days that we needed a lot of comforting. "

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