I said on Friday that I’d be paying close attention to Mitt Romney’s commencement address at Liberty University, and deciphering as many “dog whistles” as possible. And I have to say I’m impressed at how understated and subtle his pitch to the culture-warriors of Falwell’s university turned out to be. I suspect his rapidly improving political position among white conservative evangelicals, solidified by the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, made him less anxious in this particular fever swamp than one might have expected a couple of months ago.

But make no mistake, the effort to seek a new level of identity with the Christian Right was present in the speech, and not just because of his extended paen to Falwell, described as a kind, avuncular family friend with a fine sense of humor–not the sort of image the late founder of the Moral Majority left when you get much beyond the city limits of Lynchburg.

Many observers noted the one vague allusion Romney made to his own LDS faith, but may not have understood the kicker:

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. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. The best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God’s love into every life – people like the late Chuck Colson.

The front end of this paragraph is intended to restate the basic Christian Right case that conservative evangelicals and Mormons (and for that matter, Catholics) should suspend their many historical and theological differences–you know, all those quibbles about the structure of the universe, the purpose of human life, and the nature of true faith–to pursue “shared moral convictions” (i.e., opposition to LGBT and reproductive rights) that “stem from a common worldview (a heavily freighted term meaning a commitment to divinely blessed cultural conservatism in self-conscious opposition to interlocking “secularist” ideologies from Marxism to feminism to “relativism”).” But it’s the reference to Colson that is truly clever, since the recently deceased Watergate felon and prison ministry chieftain was for many years the chief advocate among conservative evangelicals of a “united front” with other conservative Christians (notably Catholic “traditionalists”) to pursue an aggressive cultural agenda wrapped in claims that those enemies of the “Christian worldview” were threatening religious liberty, which happens to have become the battle-cry of Christian Right opposition to Barack Obama.

Another anodyne-sounding section of the speech included shout-outs to a long but carefully selected list of “heroic souls” the Liberty students were asked to emulate:

[Y]our values will not always be the object of public admiration. In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Christianity is not the faith of the complacent, the comfortable or of the timid. It demands and creates heroic souls like Wesley, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, John Paul the Second, and Billy Graham.

Wonder why these particular names were chosen? Wesley and Wilberforce were known politically as great opponents of slavery, the favorite analogy of anti-choicers to their own “civil rights for the unborn” cause. Bonhoeffer was a leader in the German “Confessing Church” opposition to the Nazis, executed for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler; he is very frequently cited as an inspiration by Christian Right leaders who depict “the regime” of secularist America as similar in its lethal character and totalitarian aims to the Third Reich. JPII, of course, is invariably touted in conservative circles as the man who with Ronald Reagan defeated Soviet communism, and also instituted a counter-reformation against “liberal” strains in Catholicism. Graham’s presence in this pantheon is, I suspect, entirely attributable to his very recent abandonment of decades of non-partisan evangelism in order to endorse North Carolina’s Amendment One.

The best “dog whistles,” of course, are those that have special meaning to a select audience, but cannot be heard by noninitiates. By that measure, Romney’s Liberty speech perked up exactly the right ears, without raising the wrong hackles. One of these days I’d like to find out who wrote it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.