On Saturday, former governor and likely presidential candidate Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, where last month Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his own White House bid. Bush gave an address featuring what can only be described as a pandering, messy, and ultimately incoherent message that was clearly intended to burnish what few Christian credentials he has. A converted Catholic, Bush tried -- and failed -- to speak the dialect that his potential primary opponents Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee speak so earnestly and with far greater competence.
In his speech, Bush claimed that were it not for Christianity, there would be "power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, [and] achievement without grace."
He also bemoaned what he felt was a lack of sufficient Christian influence in society. "Your generation," he told the graduates, "is bringing the Christian voice to where it is always needed, and sometimes isn’t heard enough." (Keep these remarks in mind because as we'll see in a moment, Bush is going to undermine them.)
The very fact that Bush, like all presidential candidates, must profess a deep faith in the Judeo-Christian god in order to be a viable contender, belies his claim. This includes his potential Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who last year strained everyone's credulity by insisting that the Bible "was and remains the biggest influence" on her thinking. But in a country where 53% say they'd be less likely to vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president, this is hardly surprising.
Bush also took aim at the Obama administration by parroting the usual right-wing Christian cant about "religious freedom." To wit,
"[A]s usual, the present administration is supporting the use of coercive federal power. 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."
Of course, for Bush and other conservatives, "religious freedom" must necessarily entail the unwillingness of government to protect its more marginalized citizens, such as women who'd prefer their health plans cover contraception and gay people who'd prefer their money not be ruffed by intolerant business owners. And yet for Bush, the intolerant ones are those who think it should be illegal to refuse to provide these services.
Whether Bush, who's never been particularly religious, actually believes his own speech is immaterial. What matters is that the Republican evangelical base will be courted with all the fervor of a tent revival meeting. Bush knows this, which is why he no doubt happily accepted the invitation to Liberty, which was founded by the late religious huckster Jerry Falwell. The school requires its students to attend church weekly and teaches them creationist claptrap in science classes. It is therefore only natural that would-be Republican nominees would want to associate with such an institution of lower learning.
Lastly, Bush delivered what were, taken in context, the most bizarre lines of his entire address. After extolling the virtues of Christianity and lamenting the need for more Christian influence, he oddly declared,
"In my experience, at least, you generally find the same good instincts, fair-mindedness, and easygoing spirit among Americans of every type – including, of course, the many who belong to no church at all. That’s a lot to work with, if the aim is to accept differences instead of exploiting them, and get on with life in this free country."
So, if "the same good instincts, fair-mindedness, and easygoing spirit" transcend Christianity and can be found in Americans of all stripes, what need then is there for more Christian influence? If non-church-goes are equally capable of being moral, upstanding citizens, then wanting a stronger role for Christianity in politics and society becomes a mere matter of style, not substance.
But substance was ostensibly the point of Bush's remarks, which desperately tried to convince a skeptical audience that he's up to the task of governing the country as a man of deep faith. The largely evangelical crowd had reason for skepticism; for Christianity is rooted in the belief that without god, there would be no morality. Indeed, Bush himself said as much in his speech, yet he undermined his own point by striking that inclusive note about all Americans being capable of goodness.
When Bush officially declares his candidacy and finds himself on a debate stage with men with well-documented records of religious fanaticism, he will have a choice to make. He can try to out-zealot them and risk appearing glib and cynical, or he can go the more religiously modest route traveled by Mitt Romney and risk seeming like another doomed conservative technocrat to a base that, this time around wants someone who ostentatiously wears his faith on his sleeve. Regardless, whichever Jeb Bush decides, the path to the nomination for him will be difficult.
And that's thanks in no small part to his close connection with our last evangelical president who, while in office, wasn't particularly blessed.