On a sunny Saturday morning in early March, Bob Vander Plaats walked into the West Des Moines Marriott with a chip on his shoulder. Iowa’s evangelical shot-caller had come to meet with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was in town for the Iowa Ag Summit, a cattle call that drew the majority of Republican presidential hopefuls. Over the course of the weekend, Vander Plaats had sit-downs scheduled with just about all of them. But not Jeb Bush.
A twice-failed gubernatorial candidate who helped boost Mike Huckabee to victory in the 2008 caucuses, Vander Plaats has grown accustomed to presidential aspirants lining up to kiss his ring, and his group, the Family Leader, has yet to choose a candidate for 2016. But when Bush’s team planned the former Florida governor’s first trip to Iowa in 15 years, no time was set aside for Vander Plaats—or for any of Iowa’s other prominent Christian conservatives. The snub had left Vander Plaats stewing.
So who did he see when he walked into the Marriott lobby on Saturday morning? Bush himself—accompanied by David Kochel, the longtime Iowa Republican strategist who’s been tapped to run Bush’s national campaign. Kochel leaned over to the candidate, and after a nod and a whisper, the two sprung up and made a beeline for Vander Plaats.
“I would not say it was awkward,” Vander Plaats recalls, a trace of mischievousness in his voice. “I would say it was ‘Iowa hospitable.’ “Š” He and Bush chatted casually for about 10 minutes, he recalls, steering clear of thorny subjects and engaging in some farming banter. Bush, whom Vander Plaats says was “very, very gracious,” promised to keep in touch. That struck Vander Plaats as a throwaway line, nothing more than a pleasant way of ending the conversation. But over the following week, Bush’s team, at the candidate’s behest, did follow up, multiple times. Bush asked Vander Plaats to arrange a private meeting with his evangelical allies in Iowa; Vander Plaats consented, on the condition that Bush also speak publicly at a Family Leader function. While Bush’s team has not yet committed to that, Vander Plaats is confident that Bush will be back in Iowa sometime this year for both public and private vetting sessions with the state’s leading social conservatives. (Bush declined to comment for this story.)
The episode spotlighted, in miniature, the complicated relationship that Bush has with conservative Christians. The same voters who famously provided the “ground troops” for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 victories are, thus far, looking askance at his brother, seeing him as a classic, feckless “moderate” Republican in the mold of John McCain and Mitt Romney. That could present a major roadblock to the nomination, since fully half of Republican primary voters are evangelicals, and the number is even higher in the key early states of Iowa and South Carolina. Among white, born-again Iowa evangelicals, 27 percent said in a recent Quinnipiac poll that they definitely wouldn’t vote for Bush—tying him with Chris Christie for that group’s lowest seal of approval. Their skepticism toward Bush is a big reason why he currently polls in fifth place in the state.
And yet, Bush is hardly a stranger to the world of religious conservatism. In his two terms as Florida governor, he was a ferocious—and sometimes controversial—champion for life and traditional families, compiling a record of socially conservative governance that none of his Republican foes can match. “As it relates to making decisions as a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” Bush said in 2009. “That’s not to say that every decision I made would be completely in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church, but it was a guidepost that kept me out of trouble.”
On Bush’s first campaign swing through Iowa, he snubbed the state’s prominent Christian conservatives. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Among conservative Christian leaders, Bush inspires wildly different reactions—from deeply distrustful to nearly worshipful. Tony Perkins, who heads the influential Family Research Council, says that some of Bush’s moderate stances (on immigration and education, for instance) show his inclination to “dig in and stick a finger in the eye” of conservatives. Yet there is also a camp of more pragmatic evangelical and Catholic leaders who are anything but hostile to Bush. In fact, they’ve taken turns meeting with the former governor over the past year and are positively smitten with him.
How to reconcile these versions of Bush—the one who is viewed warily by socially conservative voters even as he embraces many of their causes, the one who turns off some evangelical leaders and impresses others, the one who both snubbed and reached out to Vander Plaats? Part of the answer may be that Bush—who is seen by friends and family as a classic introvert—simply doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve. And part of it may be shrewd politics: The man who famously said that a Republican must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” in 2016 wants to court religious voters without taking the kinds of hard-line stands that could hurt him in the general election. He knows that wooing the evangelical base generally involves talking (and talking some more) about polarizing issues—abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, to name a few—in ways that risk alienating the broader electorate come November. Bush wants to avoid that. But he also needs Christian conservatives’ votes to get to November in the first place.
It has all landed Bush in a strange, probably unprecedented, spot: He’s a natural candidate of religious conservatives who’s so far being overlooked by that influential voting bloc. Bush wants Christian conservatives to pay attention to what he’s done, not just to what he says. But in a Republican presidential primary, can actions—much less actions more than a decade in the past—actually speak louder than words? Can quiet faith, and quiet support from some religious leaders, carry the day against a field full of outspoken Christian warriors?
BEFORE HE WON two terms as governor, before his brother won two terms as president, before he considered his own 2016 White House bid, Jeb Bush lost his first political race. It was 1994, and Bush ran, in his words, as a “head-banging conservative” in a bruising campaign against Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. On the stump, when asked what he would do for Florida’s black voters, Bush said, “Probably nothing.” He ran ads accusing his opponent of not executing death-row inmates fast enough. He put out reams of far-right policy papers and recruited an ultraconservative state legislator as his running mate. But that fall, in a Republican wave election that saw his older brother knock off a Democratic governor in Texas, Bush lost an agonizingly close contest by less than 2 percentage points.
He took it hard. “I always say when you lose a race by 13 points, you can sleep soundly, because there’s nothing you could have done to change it,” says Mac Stipanovich, a GOP operative who advised Bush’s first campaign. “When you lose a race that close, you can almost never sleep again. Almost anything you could have done would have changed it.”
Bush felt he was coming up short at home, too. Long hours and 18 months on the campaign trail had taken him away from his wife and three children, and his marriage of 20 years was struggling. One of his children was getting into trouble. Always prone to introspection, he began to search for where he’d gone wrong. In an effort to regroup and reconnect with his family, he turned to the Catholic faith of his wife. Catholicism had been part of Bush’s life since 1974, when he married Columba Garnica de Gallo in the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin. They wanted the family to share a religious tradition, and their children were brought up Catholic, with Bush often attending Mass. But he’d never formally converted from his Episcopal roots.
Two weeks after his defeat, Bush went to Miami’s Church of the Epiphany and began the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—a months-long process that required him to go to confession, find a sponsor, and attend weekly courses on church doctrine and practice. He later told a Florida Catholic newspaper that the process allowed him “to take some time to pause and reflect”; this wasn’t the kind of dramatic, “I was blind, but now I see” conversion that his brother had experienced. On Easter weekend of 1995, Bush was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. In the years since, he has said that he finds the tradition’s sacraments comforting and that his “faith was strengthened when I converted to my wife’s faith.” Between his first two campaigns, Bush continued his previous work in real estate, but he also helped start a charter school in a struggling Miami neighborhood. He cowrote a book, Profiles in Character, which cribbed its title and premise from Profiles in Courage, the Pulitzer Prize—winning work of America’s only Catholic president, John Kennedy. Bush dedicated the book to his family, and “to God, whose divine and guiding light is the ultimate means to virtue.”
“I think he grew spiritually in that decade of the ‘90s,” says Al Cardenas, the former American Conservative Union chairman who has known Bush for almost four decades. “It made him a better husband and dad. I saw that before my very eyes.”
It also made him a different politician. When he tried again for governor in 1998, Bush was no longer the same combative, even angry, candidate he’d been four years earlier. His stances had changed little, but his tone was softer, his outlook more—well—compassionate. Bush explained to a St. Petersburg Times reporter that his Catholic commitment changed the tenor of his campaigning. “It’s softened it in the sense that it is a position of love, not of intolerance,” he said. “It is a deeper belief about the value and sanctity of life itself.” This time, he campaigned vigorously in black churches. He talked of his conversion and caring for the poor. “He certainly was a different candidate, but he seemed to some degree to be a different person as well,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida. He won easily, by 11 percentage points. At Bush’s inauguration, the Rev. Billy Graham prayed that the new governor would lead Florida in “a moral and spiritual awakening.”
Gov. Bush seemed bent on doing just that, and in the process, he pioneered new ways to infuse Christian faith into state government. “Jeb connected his moral and religious beliefs to his public policies more openly than a lot of people,” says Matthew Corrigan, a political-science professor at the University of North Florida. Nowhere was this more evident than in his pro-life work. (Bush would later tell the Christian Broadcasting Network that his faith informed him about “the dignity of life more than anything else.”) During his first year in office, he made good on a campaign promise, signing into law a controversial bill that created “Choose Life” license plates whose proceeds benefited crisis-pregnancy centers that encouraged women to choose adoption over abortion. Bush went on to push for a “partial-birth” abortion ban, and for legislation requiring doctors to notify the parents of girls under 18 at least two days before an abortion procedure. He signed both laws, but they were blocked by courts. Subsequently, however, Bush and conservative lawmakers got parental notification on the state ballot, and voters changed the Florida constitution to allow it to go forward. The governor happily signed parental notification into law in 2005.
Bush campaigns with his parents during his “head-banging” bid for Florida governor in 1994; after his loss, he converted to Catholicism. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
Bush was not averse to deviating from Catholic doctrine at times. He supported the death penalty, despite sustained lobbying from Catholic bishops. His pro-business policies were a far cry from the papacy’s blistering critiques of capitalism, though they lined up neatly with those of most Christian conservatives in the United States. (More recently, Bush, who has been known to tweet praise for Pope Francis, has publicly criticized the U.S. deal with Cuba, which the pontiff helped broker.) Former colleagues and staffers say the governor was private about his Catholicism on the job, but the signs were there—in the rosary he was known to carry, or in the Bible he kept in his second office, where he did most of his work. State Rep. Dennis Baxley, the dean of the Florida Legislature’s social conservatives, took comfort in the fact that Bush’s Bible was usually open at a different chapter and verse each time he visited. “It was used,” he says. “It wasn’t a decoration.”
Indeed, Florida’s faith community could find little fault with Bush as governor. His great ambition was to leave a lasting mark on education, and he delighted social conservatives by championing school choice. He created the country’s first statewide voucher system, despite legal challenges and heavy criticism from the ACLU and other champions of church-state separation. (Part of the original plan was declared unconstitutional, and rebooted as a tax-credit program.) After his brother opened the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Jeb created a similar board at the state level. He also converted three correctional facilities into faith-based prisons—the first of their kind in the nation—that used religious programs to promote rehabilitation. And whenever he made a key appointment, it seemed, Bush turned to prominent social conservatives. He tapped Patricia Levesque, a graduate of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, as his education adviser (she still leads his two education nonprofits). He appointed Bob Brooks, a state lawmaker and physician well-known for opposing abortion and homosexuality, to serve as Florida’s health secretary. The first president of the Family Research Council, a mainstay of the Christian Right lobby in Washington, headed Bush’s Department of Children and Families. Prominent activists from Focus on the Family and the Liberty Counsel (a conservative Christian law firm) were placed on the state nominating commissions that recommend judges for the governor to appoint.
But it was the strange case of Terri Schiavo where Bush’s faith emerged most publicly. By the time the Schiavo controversy hit the news, Bush had already shown an inclination to use his office to intervene in individual cases when he saw a moral imperative at stake. In 2003, after a developmentally disabled woman was raped at a state-licensed facility, becoming pregnant, Jeb asked that the fetus—in addition to the woman—be given a legal guardian for protection. His request was denied by a judge. Two years later, his administration tried to stop another ward of the state, a 13-year-old girl, from having an abortion. “It was essentially tantamount to forcing children to have children,” says Howard Simon, the director of the Florida ACLU, which helped represent the girl. (She was ultimately allowed to terminate her pregnancy.)
The struggle over Schiavo, a young woman who had been in a vegetative state since collapsing in 1990, had been ongoing for more than a decade when Bush got involved. The dispute pitted her parents, who wanted to keep her alive, against her husband, who wanted to remove her from life support. The governor entered the fray in 2003, and for nearly two years, he would fight on her parents’ side in one of the most acrimonious end-of-life cases in U.S. history. When a judge ruled that Schiavo’s feeding tube could be removed, Bush pushed the state Legislature to pass a law that gave him the authority to have the tube reinserted. When that law was struck down, he appealed. When he lost that appeal, he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. Bush then reached out to his brother and to Congress, which voted to allow Schiavo’s parents to again appeal the case—a petition that courts quickly denied.
Where some saw a gross overreach of state power into citizens’ most private decisions—and most Floridians, like most Americans, disapproved of the way the situation was handled—pro-life Christians saw a heroic effort. “Here’s a man who wanted to err on the side of life, and he gave it his all,” says Mike McCarron, who was spokesman for the Florida Catholic bishops while Bush was in office. “If he believed in something, he would do everything he could.” Ultimately, Bush couldn’t keep Schiavo alive; she died on March 31, 2005. But unlike many members of Congress, who have openly regretted their involvement in the Schiavo affair, Bush has steadfastly defended his actions. “This was a vision that was costing him political capital,” says Ken Connor, an antiabortion activist and lawyer who represented the governor in the case. “But he never expressed anything other than compassion and that he and the government had a responsibility.”
By the end of his eight years as governor, Bush had created a new model for faith-based governing—one that was overwhelmingly popular, according to polls at the time, with evangelicals in Florida. But while many Americans still remember the Schiavo controversy, Bush’s association with Christian conservatism has faded in the years since he left office. And even when he was governor, he was cautious about trumpeting his Catholic convictions. “Let me put it this way: I saw him in the back of the church a lot,” says McCarron, who attended Mass regularly with Bush in Tallahassee. “His religious values overlapped with his political and personal values. But I don’t recall an instance where he publicly said anything about it. He wouldn’t back away from [his faith] for a second. But by the same token, he’s just not going to lead with that.”
Bush’s faith-inspired efforts to keep Terri Schiavo alive fired up both admirers and detractors. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
More than a decade later, surrounded by Republican rivals shouting their testimonies and tea-party platforms from the rooftops, Bush’s record seems to count for little. “He’s not talking about life. He’s not talking about family. He’s not talking about religious liberty. And those are our core issues,” says John Stemberger, a former Bush appointee who is the president of the Florida Family Policy Council. “Yeah, he’ll answer a question. That’s what he’ll do. But he’s not championing any of our issues. So our view is this: Why would we pick Jeb, when we’ve got five other champions on our issues?”
THE SUN HAD not yet risen over South Beach when Mark DeMoss strolled onto the first tee at the Biltmore Country Club in March 2014 for a round with Florida’s former governor. DeMoss, a public-relations guru who has represented some of America’s foremost Christian leaders and groups, served as Mitt Romney’s “evangelical whisperer” in 2008 and 2012, introducing the Mormon candidate to influential Christian audiences, vouching for his values, and setting up a much-publicized meeting with the Rev. Billy Graham. Now, after nearly six years at Romney’s side, DeMoss was moving on, eager to evaluate potential candidates and see if any of them was worth supporting. First on his list was Bush, whom he’d never met. Knowing that he would soon be heading to Florida on a family vacation, DeMoss had asked a mutual friend if a brief meeting could be arranged—maybe a half-hour? A week later, he found himself spending an extended, leisurely morning with the potential candidate.
DeMoss didn’t know what to expect. What he got was hours of casual conversation with someone whose mind—and mouth—never stood still. “He talked while he played, talked while he putted. You can’t mess up his concentration,” DeMoss says. The dialogue continued after 18 holes with an unhurried brunch. Over egg whites, oatmeal, and coffee, Bush talked about his family, his record in Florida, and his thoughts about the presidential bid he was pondering. If he ran, Bush said, he wanted to do so “joyfully,” to “lift peoples’ spirits” and preach optimism. “He was talking about tackling some really tough issues in a thoughtful and substantive way,” DeMoss recalls.
One thing never came up: religion. Not once did Bush, in the course of a half-day spent with one of the political world’s most influential evangelical ambassadors, bring up his faith. Neither did DeMoss. But there was no need, he says: Everything Bush was saying and doing seemed informed by the core values that DeMoss was looking for. By the time brunch was done, DeMoss’s mind was made up. No need to visit with other candidates. “I told him then that I’d help him or nobody,” DeMoss recalls. (He is now working unofficially on Bush’s behalf, helping to coordinate faith-based outreach and doing “whatever they want me to do,” he says.)
DeMoss is hardly alone: In fact, powerful Christian conservatives are operating what amounts to a stealth campaign on Bush’s behalf. Some are old allies from the Florida days; others are holdovers from George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Some are both, including Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a longtime friend of Jeb’s who served as Southeast regional chairman of George W.’s 2004 reelection effort (and thus practically lived in Florida). Multiple GOP sources say that Reed has been urging Jeb Bush for several years to make a 2016 run and spoke with him recently to game out the campaign. Like many of the organizations that Bush’s supporters lead, Reed’s coalition demands impartiality from its leaders, so Reed can’t openly back his man—unless, as some suspect will happen, Reed ultimately decides to join the campaign officially. (Reed declined to comment for this story.)
While the candidate isn’t hitting the hustings to woo rank-and-file Christian voters, he’s been busy surreptitiously building a formidable coalition of socially conservative luminaries. Last summer, Bush flew to Colorado for a private luncheon with the brass of Focus on the Family. Several of America’s best-connected evangelicals broke bread with Bush, including Jim Daly, Focus’s president, whose radio program reaches a large, loyal audience, and Tim Goeglein, who was the faith liaison in George W. Bush’s White House. People familiar with the meeting—and unaffiliated with Bush—say the former governor made a striking impression, one that echoed through the uppermost echelons of the evangelical world. (Neither Daly nor Goeglein would comment.)
Bush also met last summer with Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was an all-day affair, Moore says, in which faith was a prime topic. Bush shared his personal faith journey; the two prayed together, talked about issues of urgency to evangelicals—religious liberties in particular—and bonded over their love of C.”ŠS. Lewis. Moore, who previously had no relationship with Bush, says he came away awestruck. “He was remarkably engaged intellectually,” Moore says, and “able to talk about a gamut of issues with extraordinary detail “… and not just the issues you’d expect a presidential candidate to be aware of.” Bush wowed Moore by appearing to know the names of pastors at “any given church” in Florida. Most important, though, he convinced Moore that he was a true social conservative. “There have been those, over the past year, that have suggested that Governor Bush is some kind of Jon Huntsman when it comes to social issues,” Moore says. “And that’s one of the things I wanted to find out. And it’s just not the case.”
Bush has continued scheduling time with Christian conservative leaders. In February, he met with Perkins during the Conservative Political Action Conference. Bush’s PAC also recently hired a senior adviser, Jordan Sekulow, who is an outspoken foe of same-sex marriage and who directs the American Center for Law and Justice, the conservative counter to the ACLU.
“Jeb may have Jesus in his heart,” says one observer, “but the Gospel isn’t on his lips so far, and religious voters want that.”
To woo Christian conservatives, Bush will have to do more than remind them that he was a trailblazer for school choice in Florida; he’ll also have to get up to speed on issues that weren’t dominating the agenda when he was governor—Obama-care’s contraception coverage mandate, for instance, and religious liberty concerns such as whether business owners can decline to serve LGBT customers or refuse to hire openly gay employees. In this endeavor, his old friend Jim Towey will be a key asset. When Bush first ran for governor in 1994, Towey was on the other side, serving as Gov. Chiles’s director of Florida’s Health and Human Services agency. The loss that sparked Bush’s conversion led to an after-election lunch with Towey, a relative stranger but also a high-profile Catholic whose brain Bush was eager to pick. The two quickly became the closest of friends, and that friendship, in turn, led to Towey’s appointment as the second director of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Towey is now president of Miami’s Ave Maria University, one of the nation’s foremost incubators of conservative Catholic doctrine, while serving unofficially as Bush’s point man for religious outreach.
“He’s really, really important—because of his long-standing personal relationship with the governor, and because he’s president of Ave Maria, so he gets the HHS mandate and the other things evangelicals are concerned about,” Moore says. “People say [Bush] hasn’t run since 2002, and that he doesn’t understand the current issues. Yes, he does—because he’s got Jim Towey working with him.”
Towey is coordinating an exclusive, invitation-only summit between Bush and a boldface roster of Christian conservatives; the details are still being worked out, but the meeting is expected to occur in the next few months. Towey expects it will underscore Bush’s strength with socially conservative movers and shakers. “I’ve talked with some of the most prominent Catholics and evangelicals in America, and they’re with him,” Towey says. “If he’s in, they’re in.”
Bush’s friend knows it’s a tougher sale at the grassroots, where folks don’t know the man of faith he does. Towey recalls, years ago, arranging for Bush and his wife, Columba, to visit with Mother Teresa’s priest in the slums of Tijuana during a trip to Mexico. Colleagues who were there later told Towey that the governor began weeping when he encountered a destitute woman singing a hymn. It’s the kind of story, Towey says, that Bush himself would never tell—a reticence that contributes, he fears, to his reputation of being insufficiently fervent about his religion.
“Jeb is not so much interested in talking about God, but the actions,” Towey says. “He is very much interested in faith that’s lived out; he’s not so interested in the theo-logy, as much as the theology in action.” He points to a 2012 commencement address Bush gave at Ave Maria, in which he touched only peripherally on faith. “It was an interesting speech,” Towey says. “Here he is at a very Catholic university, but he talked mostly about the value and importance of work. To Jeb, that’s spiritually rooted—that you go out and work, and do for others, and not be a spectator in life.”
TODAY BUSH IS an active member of the Church of the Little Flower, near his home in affluent Coral Gables. The second-oldest parish in Miami-Dade County, the bustling, bilingual church of more than 3,000 families is full of influential members. Bush’s priest, the Rev. Michael Davis, describes him as “generously supportive of our parish.” Jeb and Columba like to worship at the 10:30 a.m. Mass, the one with the full choir; recently, their granddaughter was baptized at the church. “He is a valued member of our community,” Davis says. “I am delighted that he feels spiritually supported here.”
Bush needs to show that side of himself—the one who attends Mass, carries a rosary, and keeps a Bible in his office; the one who is beloved by people like Jim Towey—to Christian conservatives if he is to win them over. However, he appears determined to do this on his own terms. For instance, he is skipping the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring kickoff event on April 24—an all-day affair that is considered mandatory for anyone who hopes to win a meaningful slice of Iowa’s evangelical electorate. It’s an absence made even more notable by the fact that the coalition is run by Reed, Bush’s old pal and potential ace in the hole with conservative Christians. Steve Scheffler, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Iowa chapter, was initially disappointed at Bush’s decision not to attend. But in the weeks since, he says, Bush’s team has reached out, repeatedly, to nail down arrangements for a very different type of event—a get-to-know-you “house party” for Bush and evangelical activists. It’s the same type of event Bush’s people are hoping to coordinate with Bob Vander Plaats and the Family Leader.
Scheffler thinks Bush’s approach is fine—not every candidate should adopt the faith-on-his-sleeve style of George W. Bush, he says, and it’s unfair to push the comparison on Jeb. “I don’t think most Christians want their candidates to come out and say, ‘I’m a committed Christian because A, B, C, and D.’ It needs to be subtle. I don’t think Christian conservatives in Iowa expect that from Bush, or even want that. A lot of it will be based on words and actions, and how faith drives his actions,” Scheffler says. “I don’t think Jeb Bush has to mimic what his brother did. You’ve got to be yourself, you know?”
Clearly, though, Bush being himself isn’t cutting it for many social conservatives. The only way he can capture their hearts and votes, some say, is to throw himself into one of the hot cultural battles of the day—perhaps by vowing to veto the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban hiring on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, if it passes while he’s in the White House. The bill, which has passed the Senate but stalled in the House, has become a flash point for social conservatives who view it—like Obamacare—as one more way Washington might trample on the religious liberties of business owners. “Just that one thing would be enormous,” says John Stemberger.
But decrying ENDA is precisely the type of pickle that Bush doesn’t want to find himself in. ENDA may be a monstrosity in the minds of social conservatives, but lashing out at the bill is hardly a recipe for campaigning “joyfully.” Moderate and major Republican donors are counting on Bush to transcend culture-war divisiveness and broaden the party’s appeal with younger and minority voters. In its early stages—and despite the fact that Bush opposes same-sex marriage—his campaign has been remarkably gay-friendly, at least in a Republican context. Mike Murphy, Bush’s California-based chief strategist, fought to overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage; Bush’s senior communications adviser, Tim Miller, is the most prominent openly gay operative in the modern Republican Party. Even with Sekulow’s recent hiring, the campaign is showing unmistakably ecumenical tendencies.
Some social conservatives warn that Bush’s failure to speak out strongly on their issues could doom him in the general election, because evangelicals won’t be mobilized to turn out. That is almost certainly an idle threat: If Bush survives the primaries, there’s little doubt that Christian conservative voters will get behind him. Even Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and onetime identity as a centrist didn’t deter them in 2012—Romney won as much support from evangelical voters as George W. Bush did in 2004. Bush’s Catholicism will be no obstacle, either. The historical mistrust between evangelical Protestants and Catholics is a distant memory now, after decades in which conservatives from both traditions have partnered on social issues under a strategy known as “co-belligerency.” This year’s cycle will likely include no fewer than five Catholic contenders on the Republican side—one of whom, Rick Santorum, rode the evangelical vote to victory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. “When I talk to evangelicals about Jeb Bush, the fact that he’s Catholic never comes up,” says Russell Moore. “Literally, I have never had an evangelical mention it.”
But Bush has other obstacles to winning the conservative Christian votes that he needs to secure the Republican nomination. “You have to have Jesus in your heart and the Gospel on your lips,” says Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. “Jeb may have Jesus in his heart, but the Gospel isn’t on his lips so far, and religious voters want that.”
His best bet, according to several religious and political thinkers, may be to roll out a time-worn strategy: Share the story of his faith, in a heartfelt way, to connect with values voters. In January, in the unlikely setting of an auto-dealers’ gathering in San Francisco, Bush came as close to testifying as he has so far in this campaign. During the question-and-answer portion, after he had talked at great length about tax policy, Bush was asked what he does for fun. He loves Sundays, he said: “I don’t work on Sundays. I play golf really fast so that I can have breakfast really fast so I can go to Mass”—he paused—“slower.” The crowd laughed and he smiled, loosening up a bit. “I can’t ask the priest to accelerate that. I probably would if I could.” More laughter. “Please don’t tell Father Davis—he would be very upset that I said that.”
Then he got more serious. “Bushes aren’t good about spilling our guts on things that are private,” he said. But he did—talking about converting to his wife’s Catholicism, how it strengthened his faith, and how it helped him as a governor and, now, as a presidential contender. “It gives me a serenity that, in a world of a lot of turbulence, is really important,” he said. “There are views I have that are grounded in faith that really aren’t negotiable. And it just simplifies things, particularly in public life, where you’re always asked to modify this and modify that.” If faith drives you, he said, you stick to your guns. “Because it’s more important than politics.”
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story misspelled Terri Schiavo’s name. In addition, the article originally stated that Marco Rubio worships at the Church of the Little Flower when in Florida. He is registered at a different church.