Early on Sunday's NBC Today, co-host Jenna Wolfe stirred division between Mitt Romney and conservatives as she proclaimed: "[He] spoke at Liberty University, an evangelical school that's called his Mormon faith a cult. Can he get religious conservatives excited about his presidential campaign?"
Introducing the later report on the speech, fellow co-host Lester Holt ominously declared: "Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, walked into the lion's den this weekend. He gave the commencement address at Liberty University, an influential conservative Christian school where some have a big problem with his Mormon faith."
Correspondent Peter Alexander emphasized the university's criticism of the Mormon faith: "Romney's remarks were heavily focused on religion, but he walked a fine line when it came to his own faith, not once mentioning the word 'Mormon'....At this campus where many view Mormonism with distrust, one theology course here labeling it as a "major cult," Romney received a polite welcome."
On Monday's Today, Alexander described Liberty as the "spiritual heart of the conservative movement" while noting that "many view Romney's Mormon faith with suspicion" on campus.
Following Alexander's Sunday Today report, Holt discussed the topic with Meet the Press host David Gregory and wondered if Romney had to give a speech on Mormonism: "...you look back at John F. Kennedy, made the speech – defining speech about Catholicism. Obama during the campaign spoke out about race. Is there an expectation that Romney at some point will deliver a message specifically about his Mormon faith?"
I think if it didn't happen in the course of the primaries, it's less likely to happen in the course of the general election. I don't think that President Obama is going to make an issue of his Mormon faith. There are going to be people, particularly, you know, Christians, who view Mormonism in a certain way....I think the fear would be that it would create a turnout problem among Republicans, but at the moment, it doesn't appear to be a huge, huge issue.
Despite Gregory's assertion that Romney's Mormonism wouldn't be a "huge issue," on NBC's April 4 Tonight Show, he told Jay Leno that Romney's Mormon faith would be an "issue" because "this is the core of who Mitt Romney is." At that time, Gregory also lamented the fact that Romney "doesn't talk about it....the Mormon faith, this is a tremendous commitment that he has. And yet, I think he feels apprehensive about talking about it openly."
On the April 8 Meet the Press, Republican Utah Congressman Raul Labrador, a Mormon, confronted Gregory on NBC's treatment of Romney's faith: "I think the media is gonna do that – for – for the Obama campaign....you look at your own network. MSNBC, you have Lawrence O'Donnell, it's – just saying some really nasty things about the Mormon religion, about the founding – of – of our religion....there's some really nasty things already being said by – by your own network, by NBC."
Here is a full transcript of Alexander's May 13 Today report:
8:01AM ET TEASE:
JENNA WOLFE: On Saturday, Mitt Romney spoke at Liberty University, an evangelical school that's called his Mormon faith a cult. Can he get religious conservatives excited about his presidential campaign?
8:09AM ET SEGMENT:
LESTER HOLT: Now to presidential politics. Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, walked into the lion's den this weekend. He gave the commencement address at Liberty University, an influential conservative Christian school where some have a big problem with his Mormon faith. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
MITT ROMNEY: To the Class of 2012, well done and congratulations.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Decision 2012; Romney Addresses Evangelicals During Commencement]
PETER ALEXANDER: At Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, Mitt Romney faced a stadium full of evangelical Christians, an audience that he's struggled to win over in this year's campaign. The commencement address offered Romney an opportunity to try to convince social conservatives he'll fight for their beliefs, including what he called "the enduring institution of marriage."
ROMNEY: Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
ALEXANDER: But Romney largely avoided divisive issues, emphasizing to these graduates that strong family values are key to helping improve the economy.
ROMNEY: Moral certainty, clear standards and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that is searching for meaning.
ALEXANDER: Here at the world's largest Christian university, Mitt Romney's remarks were heavily focused on religion, but he walked a fine line when it came to his own faith, not once mentioning the word "Mormon." Instead, he suggested people of different faiths should find common ground in service. At this campus where many view Mormonism with distrust, one theology course here labeling it as a "major cult," Romney received a polite welcome.
SARAH COLEIN [2012 LIBERTY UNIVERSITY GRADUATE]: I think that he did a really great job, like, considering the fact that he was coming in front of thousands of people that he knew disagreed with certain things.
STEPHEN JONES [2012 LIBERTY UNIVERSITY GRADUATE]: I think that the one thing is going to be the glaring problem is going to be the deity of Jesus Christ.
ALEXANDER: Romney's aides insist it was not a policy speech, but they hope it helps strengthen his support with a community he needs in November. For Today, Peter Alexander, NBC News, Lynchburg, Virginia.