When does Jeb Bush allow religion to influence his politics? When he’s not in New Hampshire.
It was this perception Bush left some campaign-watchers with last week amid an otherwise-flawless rollout of his presidential candidacy. Indeed, from Miami to New Hampshire to Iowa to Washington, Bush handled dozens of questions with an expertise and consistency that showed why some consider him the leader of the 2016 Republican field.
Yet one issue proved a difficult balancing act for Bush: God, and more specifically, the role of religion in government.
On his first full day as a declared candidate, Bush held a town-hall-style meeting in Derry, New Hampshire. The former governor fielded 16 questions, most of them fiscally focused, and displayed with his answers a mastery of economic messaging. But it was the second-to-last question that left Bush visibly flummoxed and produced an answer that dogged him for the remainder of the week. A man told Bush that parts of Florida “will be underwater” by 2100, and then asked what he thought about Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical on climate change.
After emphasizing what an “extraordinary leader” Pope Francis has proven to be, Bush gave a quiet chuckle, then declared: “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
Bush said he would wait to read the encyclical before commenting further. And then he added: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
That line drew loud and sustained applause—which was unsurprising, given the famously secular makeup of New Hampshire’s electorate. (Only 24 percent of its residents described themselves as “very religious” in a 2014 Gallup survey, making it the second-least religious state behind Vermont.) It also would seem to mesh with Bush’s reputation as someone who is intensely private about his faith and rarely speaks publicly about his religion—even when implementing policies clearly informed by it.
Indeed, Bush’s remark, a political winner in New Hampshire, ran counter to his record in Florida—where he established a blueprint for faith-based governing by repeatedly intervening where he saw a moral imperative at stake. Among other things, Bush approved “Choose Life” license plates that funded antiabortion efforts, converted three correctional facilities into faith-based prisons, interceded in multiple abortion-related court cases, and appointed prominent social conservatives to cabinet positions and nominating commissions. He also invested significant political capital in the losing fight to keep Terri Schiavo alive—an effort that flowed, he acknowledged, from his Catholic worldview.
Bush’s statement in New Hampshire also conflicted with comments he would make later in the week.
The next morning he was in Iowa, where the first question Bush fielded was about what he could do “to put God back in our school system “¦ and back into the forefront of our country.” Bush said the issue of religion in schools had “unfortunately” been decided by the Supreme Court. He then pivoted to discuss the importance of religious liberty.
“It’s not just in the church pews where you should be able to express your opinion, it’s on the town square. And that’s what’s missing right now,” Bush said. He added: “We’re now at a point where people that do have faith that guides their decisions [are told] they need to keep it in a lockbox somewhere—keep it at home, keep a lock on it. And I think that’s where we take our stand.” To leave no doubt about his kinship with Iowa’s heavily-evangelical GOP electorate, Bush contrasted himself with Hillary Clinton, noting that “I’m a Catholic and I’m informed by my faith in a lot of things.”
Bush reiterated that stance two days later at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, where he outlined “how faith has impacted my life personally, and as a public servant.” He said Catholicism “has been an organizing part of my architecture “¦ as a person and certainly as an elected official,” and mocked the “game of political correctness” that says decisions in government shouldn’t be influenced by one’s faith. Bush rejected this idea—”that’s not me,” he proudly declared—and proved it by citing a string of faith-fueled battles he waged in Florida, including the Schiavo case.
So what to make of Bush’s comments in New Hampshire? Was he tailoring his message to a less-religious audience in a state his candidacy could hinge on? Was he subtly attempting to distance himself from his brother, who famously named “Christ” as his favorite philosopher and whose White House was heavily populated with evangelical Christians? Or did the candidate simply misspeak?
When he met with reporters after his backyard event in Iowa, Bush was asked to reconcile his statements in New Hampshire with his record as governor and his comments that day. Bush said he didn’t recall his saying exactly that in New Hampshire, and when I offered to read the quote back to him, Bush said, “Yes, please,” and then added with a smirk: “Drumroll “¦.”
When the quote was read back to him, Bush said some people don’t want candidates to “politicize our faith.” Asked how his faith would impact his policymaking if elected president, Bush replied: “Same as it does now, and same as it did as governor. With respect, understanding that my views are not the universal views, but I think it’s OK to have a set of principles that are informed by some moral underpinning—whether it’s in my case my Catholicism, or in other peoples’ case just their belief in a set of principles that they adhere to that may not be faith-driven. That’s being a human being, and I’m surprised that this is such an extraordinarily complicated thing.”
Bush added: “But maybe I’m not expressing it well.”
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