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Sen. John McCain called for greater respect amid political differences in a symbolic commencement address Saturday at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Six years ago, while running for president against George W. Bush, McCain called Falwell and evangelist Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” who exercised an “evil influence” in the Republican Party.

Now laying groundwork for another possible candidacy in 2008, McCain’s appearance at the Lynchburg, Va., school shows that he and Falwell have set aside their differences. It also suggests that McCain believes he cannot win without at least some support from the religious right.

“We have our disagreements, we Americans,” McCain said. “We contend regularly and enthusiastically over many questions: over the size and purposes of our government; over the social responsibilities we accept in accord with the dictates of our conscience and our faithfulness to the God we pray to; over our role in the world and how to defend our security interests and values in places where they are threatened. These are important questions; worth arguing about. We should contend over them with one another. It is more than appropriate, it is necessary that even in times of crisis, especially in times of crisis, we fight among ourselves for the things we believe in. It is not just our right, but our civic and moral obligation.”

One area where McCain and the religious right don’t agree is gay marriage. Falwell supports amending the Constitution to recognize marriage as being between a man and woman. McCain opposes an amendment, leaving it a matter for determination by the states.

McCain said: “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.”

McCain said Americans “have so much more that unites us than divides us.”

“Let us argue with each other then,” he said. “By all means, let us argue. Our differences are not petty, they often involve cherished beliefs, and represent our best judgment about what is right for our country and humanity. Let us defend those beliefs. Let’s do so sincerely and strenuously. It is our right and duty to do so. And let’s not be too dismayed with the tenor and passion of our arguments, even when they wound us. We have fought among ourselves before in our history, over big things and small, with worse vitriol and bitterness than we experience today.”

McCain did not apologize directly for his remarks about Falwell in 2000, but reconciliation between the two has been going on for several months, at Falwell’s initiative.

Falwell and McCain had not spoken for years, when Falwell called out of the blue last September and asked for a meeting. According to the Washington Post, they sat down together Sept. 20. Within five minutes they had agreed to forget about differences in the past and talk about the future.

Asked if he could see himself supporting McCain for president, Falwell told the paper, “Of course. If he is the candidate, he’ll certainly have my support.”

Critics accused McCain of pandering and said speaking at Liberty could threaten his image as a maverick.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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