LYNCHBURG, Va. – Sen. John McCain, looking to heal a rift with the religious conservatives who undermined his 2000 White House bid, told students graduating at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's university Saturday that Americans have a right to disagree on issues but should maintain respect for each other.
The Arizona Republican specifically referred to disagreements over the war in Iraq during his commencement address at Liberty University. He noted that the war "has taken innocent life," but he said he has stood his ground in support of it because he believed "my country's interests and values required it."
McCain defended the rights of those who disagree with him and argued that "Americans deserve more than tolerance from one another."
"We deserve each other's respect, whether we think each other right or wrong in our views, as long as our character and our sincerity merit respect, and as long as we share, for all our differences, for all the noisy debates that enliven our politics, a mutual devotion to the sublime idea that this nation was conceived in — that freedom is the inalienable right of mankind, and in accord with the laws of nature and nature's creator," he said.
McCain's address made no direct mention of the political divide that separated McCain and Falwell after the Baptist preacher opposed his campaign for the GOP nomination in 2000 and supported George W. Bush. At the time, McCain labeled Falwell and others on the right and the left as "agents of intolerance."
The two reconciled last fall while still acknowledging that they disagree about some issues. McCain said recently that he no longer considers Falwell an agent of intolerance. Falwell has said no apologies were asked or offered.
On Saturday, McCain received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd of 10,000 in the university's Vines Center. Falwell awarded McCain an honorary doctorate of humanities and praised the sacrifices he made for the country as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"The ilk of John McCain is very scarce, very small," Falwell told the graduating class of 2,458.
The evangelist has denied that his invitation to McCain to be Liberty's commencement speaker meant he was supporting him for president in 2008. Should McCain be the GOP nominee, however, Falwell has said he could support him.
The two disagree over how to respond to gay marriage, for example. McCain opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which Falwell supports, but McCain favors state actions to preserve traditional marriage.
McCain made no reference to family values in his commencement address, focusing instead on global concerns.
He drew applause when he said the United States should take up arms against the "awful human catastrophe" in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Osama bin Laden and his followers, he said, "have called on Muslims to rise up against any Westerner who dares intervene to stop the genocide."
McCain drew criticism for agreeing to speak at Liberty University, the conservative Christian institution that Falwell founded in 1971. Critics suggested he was backing away from the stand he took on Falwell in 2000 to court conservatives for a likely campaign in 2008.
McCain has defended appearing at Liberty University and at liberal institutions that foster views he might not share.
His next campus venues may be contentious. Liberal activists in New York are protesting both his address at Columbia College's "Class Day" on Tuesday and his Friday commencement address at The New School, where a petition campaign was staged in an effort to disinvite him.