Looking to win over skeptical evangelical voters, Jeb Bush pushed back Saturday against what he said are modern intrusions on religion as he lauded graduates and their families at Liberty University, a Christian college popular on the path to the Republican presidential nomination.
“Fashionable ideas and opinions – which these days can be a religion all by itself – have got a problem with Christians and their right of conscience,” Bush told an audience of 34,000 in the school’s football stadium.
“That makes it our problem, and the proper response is a forthright defense of the first freedom in our Constitution.”
Some evangelicals view Bush warily, questioning whether the former Florida governor and likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination would provide a suitable bulwark against gay marriage, illegal immigration and other issues key to conservatives.
Bush did not mention gay marriage, but got some of his loudest applause when he said “wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love.”
And the convert to Catholicism pledged that he would not apologize for allowing faith to influence his decision making.
“The simple and safe reply is, ‘No. Never. Of course not,’ “ Bush said. “If the game is political correctness, that’s the answer that moves you to the next round.”
He defended the role of religion in contemporary life arguing that religious Americans are being cast as “intolerant scolds, running around trying to impose their views on everyone.”
He declared “our friends on the left like to view themselves as the agents of change and reform, and you and I are supposed to just get with the program.”
He cited Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial decision to subpoena pastors in connection with a lawsuit over the city’s equal rights ordinance.
And he got applause slamming the Obama’s administration’s health agency for “dictating” to the Catholic charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, what goes into their health plan.
“I’m betting that when it comes to doing the right and good thing, the Little Sisters of the Poor know better than the regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services,” Bush said. “From the standpoint of religious freedom, you might even say it’s a choice between the Little Sisters and Big Brother – and I’m going with the Little Sisters.”
Bush was warmly received but the crowd was likely craving a more forceful defense, said Daniel Pryfogle, 42, of Cary, N.C., who was watching as his mother, Pam, received a doctorate in education.
“He’s clearly speaking the mainstream Christian tenets of justice, mercy and love,” Pryfogle said. “But he’s in a difficult spot because in this primary he’s got to speak more to the right.”
Bush has yet to declare his candidacy, but he made an allusion to the presidential history of his family while noting that he just met Jonathan Falwell, one of the sons of the school’s co-founder, the late Jerry Falwell.
“His his father used to be president, and then his brother became president,” Bush said as the crowd laughed and clapped. “Somehow – I don’t know what it was – we really hit it off.”
Bush faces considerable competition in the contest for the influential, if not always decisive, voting bloc of evangelical Christians. His visit to Liberty comes just days after former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is popular with evangelical Christians, launched his bid for the nomination.
And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in March used the backdrop of Liberty to launch his quest for the presidency Monday with a strong pitch to evangelical Christians.
Still, a recent national poll suggested Bush was holding his own among white, born-again Christians. Bush pulled in 12 percent of white, born-again Christians in the April 25 Quinnipiac survey. His fellow Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio topped him at 15 percent, with Huckabee at 11 percent and Cruz at 10 percent.
Bush is making aggressive efforts to court evangelicals, aided by a senior advisor, Jordan Sekulow, an evangelical attorney who leads the American Center for Law and Justice and is Bush’s point person for outreach to religiously conservative voters.
“I think he’s beginning to do the right thing in terms of engaging with that constituency,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
“A lot of conservatives have forgotten Bush had a pretty conservative record,” Scheffler said, citing in particular Bush’s aggressive intervention to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state who died in 2005 despite Bush signing a law that allowed authorities to re-insert her feeding tube.
“Some conservatives have not been real comfortable with him, but we all have increasing comfort once he tells his story,” Scheffler said.