First up from the God Machine this week is arguably the most closely watched commencement address from a presidential candidate since George W. Bush stopped by Bob Jones University 12 years ago. Today, of course, is the day Mitt Romney speaks at Liberty University, a right-wing school founded by the late radical televangelist Jerry Falwell.
The timing could be better for the Republican. When the campaign announced that Romney would speak at the Virginia college, it didn't know the remarks would come amidst a larger discussion of marriage rights, the anti-gay measures in the former governor's platform, and a decades-old incident in which Romney allegedly assaulted a high-school student believed to be gay.
Delivering a commencement address at Falwell's school is itself a strange decision -- at this phase of the campaign, shouldn't Romney stop pandering to extremists and start Etch A Sketching towards the American mainstream? -- but for the speech to come now makes it all the more significant.
There's no shortage of compelling angles to this story. Note, for example, "The Liberty Way" -- the university's all-encompassing code of conduct -- which dictates much of students' lives, even off campus. Dancing and R-rated movies are prohibited, for example, and the punishment for student abortions is the same as dabbling in witchcraft. (Perhaps "Liberty" was not the best choice of names for the school.)
Falwell U. also, incidentally, offers a course that identifies Mormons as belonging to a "cult" that must be defeated.
Given all of this, will Romney use his speech today to put some distance between himself and the religious right's radicalism or will he pander to the evangelical audience with culture-war red meat? Chances are, we'll see neither -- advance excerpts suggest the GOP presidential hopeful will stick to more generic themes, such as the value of family, and hope his mere presence is enough to solidify the support Romney will need from the right in November.
But for the larger mainstream, the commencement address suggests Romney's post-primary shift away from his party's more extreme elements still isn't happening. What's more, despite all the talk about his focus on the economy, the Republican's anti-gay agenda is reinforced, not just with his push for a constitutional amendment, but with his decision to visit a school that considers itself a "hard liner institution against the homosexual menace."
Also from the God Machine this week:
* The U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops went into more detail this week when criticizing Republican budget cuts the Roman Catholic leaders believe are needlessly punitive towards the poor (thanks to C.S. for the tip).
* When President Obama endorsed marriage equality this week, he announced a position that his church, the United Church of Christ, has supported for quite a while.
* The Vatican crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization representing 57,000 American nuns, was reportedly "spurred on by American Catholic officials worried the nuns aren't vocal enough on conservative social issues."
* The religious right's pseudo historian, David Barton, has a new book. It's filled with claims that don't stand up well to scrutiny.
* And in Arizona, a private religious school was set to play in a baseball state championship, but forfeited because their rival's team was co-ed (thanks to R.P. for the tip).