Walking the Line On ReligionCéleste Perrino-Walker September/October 2015
John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, son of former president George H. W. Bush, brother of former president George W. Bush, was slow in declaring his formal intention of running for president in the 2016 presidential election, but that did not stop people from speculating. You can hardly blame them. For one thing, in keeping with the times, on December 16, 2014, Bush announced in a Facebook post that he had decided to actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States.1
In the same post, he also said that he planned to establish a leadership political action committee (PAC), which he did. In January he officially launched the Right to Rise PAC. According to its Web site, the PAC “will celebrate success and risk-taking, protect liberty, cherish free enterprise, strengthen our national defense, embrace the energy revolution, fix our broken and obsolete immigration system, and give all children a better future by transforming our education system through choice, high standards, and accountability.”2 All things, coincidentally, that Bush himself stands for.
Bush’s stated purpose in launching the PAC was to help him facilitate conversations with citizens across America to discuss the most critical challenges facing the nation. But it has also allowed him ample opportunity to fund-raise for the PAC, something that many people speculate is the very reason he didn’t throw his hat into the arena earlier, even though virtually everyone seemed to believe he would . . . eventually. Once a candidate makes an official presidential announcement, he or she is forced to abide by campaign finance laws that grossly limit the amount of money he or she is able to raise for the official campaign committee, those donations being subject to public disclosure per campaign finance laws.
In May, while continuing to unofficially enjoy the sightseeing tour along the campaign trail, Bush gave the commencement address at Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world, founded by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and considered to be a key campaign stop for Republicans on the road to the White House. During his address Bush joked about meeting Falwell’s son Jonathan, who is a Lynchburg pastor. “His dad used to be president, then his brother became president. Somehow—I don’t know what it was—we really hit it off,” Bush deadpanned.3
Though the quip got a laugh, his family may prove to be the crucible upon which Jeb Bush’s career is forged, since there’s little doubt his family connections are as likely to hinder as help him. There are those who, despite Jeb’s autonomy, believe that three Bushes in less than three decades is at least one Bush too many. Addressing this sentiment, Jeb Bush told a crowd in Chicago, “I love my brother, I love my dad. . . . But I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.”4
One of those experiences is his deep faith. Though brought up Episcopalian, both George W. and Jeb converted to their spouses’ religions. “Dubya,” who by his own account has a rich spiritual life and disconcerted some people by the way he wore his faith on his sleeve during his presidency, converted to his wife’s Methodism. Likewise, Jeb Bush, also deeply religious, converted to his wife Columba’s Catholicism, citing how he had come to love the sacraments. His religious convictions clearly inform the stand he takes on many of the issues; the concern is whether he will allow those strongly held religious beliefs to inform his policy decisions, thereby ignoring the wall between church and state, an issue of which he seems to be keenly aware.
Right of conscience can be a touchy subject, Bush admitted in his commencement address at Liberty University. “I’m asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith. Whenever I hear this, I know what they want me to say: ‘No, never, of course not.’ If the game is political correctness, that’s the answer that moves you to the next round. The end point is a certain kind of politician we’ve all heard before, the guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he even refuses to impose them on himself.”5
Bush gave a pretty clear demonstration of how his own moral convictions might play out in his official decision-making capacity. It can be seen through the evolution of his stand on same-sex marriage. While governor of Florida, Bush believed there was no need for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. However, he reevaluated that belief as courts in other states began overturning laws banning such marriages. He indicated support of an amendment to the Florida constitution banning same-sex marriage, though ultimately Florida’s Amendment 2 defining marriage solely as the union of a man and a woman was passed a year after his gubernatorial term had ended.
Seeming to step back a pace and distance himself from his previous stand, he was recently quoted in the Times as saying, “We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law. I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue—including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty.”6
Though he never actually supported same-sex marriage, Bush once again solidified his strong opposition to it at a time when much of America was anticipating a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue in late June. He told the conservative Christian Broadcasting Network show The Brody File, “It’s at the core of the Catholic faith and to imagine how we are going to succeed in our country unless we have committed family life, [a] committed child-centered family system, is hard to imagine. So, irrespective of the Supreme Court ruling, because they are going to decide whatever they decide—I don’t know what they are going to do—we need to be stalwart supporters of traditional marriage.”
While heterosexual marriage is at the core of many of the world’s religions, and certainly not only Catholic or even Christian, it is troubling that Bush calls out the fact that his stand is based specifically on Catholicism. It highlights the fact that while Christian values should certainly not be hidden simply because someone is in public office, it is the solemn duty of those in positions of power and authority not to allow their Christian ideas, however noble and worthy they may be, to undermine the very religious freedom America holds so dear by imposing them in an official way. That it is easy to blur that line is obvious in the revealing exchange between Bush’s brother George and White House correspondent Helen Thomas after then-president George Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which was part of his plan to channel government funds to religious charities:
“‘Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state?’ she asked Bush at a February news conference.
“‘I strongly respect the separation of church and state,’ the president insisted.
“‘Well, you wouldn’t have a religious office in the White House if you did,’ said Thomas.”7
Jeb Bush made it clear in his Liberty University address that while he understands and respects the solidity of the wall of separation between church and state, some values, while Christian, are also universal which allows them to permeate the wall. “The mistake,” he said, “is to confuse points of theology with moral principles that are knowable to reason as well as by faith. And this confusion is all part of a false narrative that casts religious Americans as intolerant scolds running around trying to impose their views on everyone.”8
He went on to say, “What should be easy calls in favor of religious freedom have instead become an aggressive stance against it. Somebody here is being small-minded and intolerant, and it sure isn’t the nuns, ministers, and laymen and women who ask only to live and practice their faith. Federal authorities are demanding obedience in complete disregard of religious conscience and in a free society the answer is no.”9
On many key issues Bush has a decidedly conservative record established during his years as governor of Florida. In spite of his track record, though, he is often seen by fellow Republicans as being too liberal, a perception that could cost him the GOP nomination. The two most prominent areas in which he deviates from his party are education (he favors federalized education) and immigration (he supports legal status for undocumented immigrants).
He also has a reputation for criticizing the GOP’s negative, narrow-minded exclusivity. In a speech at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference he said, “All too often we’re associated with being ‘anti’ everything. Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted, and unwelcome in our party.”10
If Bush has his way, that isn’t the only thing that will change. He reminded the graduating class at Liberty University that “this doesn’t always come as a welcome reminder in some quarters, but it is true all the same: Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice, there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action.”11
One thing is certain: In the race for president, Jeb Bush’s strong religious convictions will be a refreshing change in the cynical sphere of politics, saturated as it is with corruption and grandstanding. But it remains to be seen whether or not he can successfully walk the fine line of remaining true to the essential Christian values of which he is convicted without imposing them through legal means upon others.
9 Ibid. [15:25]
11 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzQyu5Sp2b8 [4.38]