Politics & Policy

At Liberty University, Jeb Lays Out a Vision for Revitalizing Religious Freedom

(Drew Angerer/Getty)

‘It can be a touchy subject,” Jeb Bush said during his commencement speech at Liberty University this weekend. “I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith.”

“Whenever I hear this,” the former governor of Florida, said, “I know what they want me to say.”

We of faith do know; we hear it increasingly said and see the idea behind it increasingly enforced. In many ways it’s what people have been saying since John F. Kennedy’s (in)famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. Indeed, since Kennedy, Catholics have led the way on this question for better or worse, first in seeking a place at the table of American civil society, then in diluting our contribution to it by privatizing and relegating to Sundays some of the best we have to offer.

This is not true of all Christians, thanks be to God. But it has been a scandal in our public witness and has allowed for the manipulation and marginalization of religious people that we see today.

Back to Jeb. When asked about if his Christian faith would influence his politics in any real way, he said:

The simple and safe reply is, ‘No. Never. Of course not.’ If the game is political correctness, that’s the answer that moves you to the next round. The endpoint is a certain kind of politician we’ve all heard before — the guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses even to impose them on himself.

Yes, that’s the game. And playing that way gets us to the point where we see Christianity making less of a difference in American political and cultural life. It’s a difference that, from our earliest days, we’ve relied on, that we’ve needed. It’s one that has been a corrective and a conscience.

And so Bush continued, knowing where we are, and assuming he was speaking to an audience poised to work to turn things around in whatever fields they go into, as Christians in environments — and a country — increasingly hostile to public, robust religious engagement beyond worship services or comfort or nostalgia: “The mistake 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.”

He didn’t sugar-coat the times, and began by noting the plight of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the women religious who serve the elderly poor and have been forced into court by the Obama administration to maintain their freedom to live authentically:

There are consequences when you don’t genuflect to the latest secular dogmas. And those dogmas can be hard to keep up with. So we find officials in a major city demanding that pastors turn over copies of their sermons. Or federal judges mistaking themselves for elected legislators, and imposing restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution. Or an agency dictating to a Catholic charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, what has to go in their health plan — and never mind objections of conscience.

I don’t know about you, but 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. 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 Sisters.

He made sure the current state of religious freedom in America was clear:

That case continues, and as 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 lay men 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.

Bush continued with an observation:

It strikes me that most of the criticism directed at believers in our day is drawn from hostile caricature. That’s just the easy way of avoiding honest discussion. It is a posture that only deepens distrust, instead of inviting understanding. So often we hear language that divides us, when what we need is the language of good will.  

At one point he sounded as if he were making a general-election pitch to a mixed audience, rather than the conventional take that he was looking to shore up the Republican base by speaking at Liberty:

There is so much that we share in common, across all the lines of region, religion, and demography that are constantly being talked about. 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. 

Much of the coverage of his speech caricatured it as “courting Evangelicals.” In truth, he was issuing a challenge and a vision: One where Americans of faith lead us to a better place, one where the freedom to live integrated lives of faith is once again not merely tolerated but valued and celebrated.

In her new book, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, Kirsten Powers talks about what a difference seeing beyond the caricature of the Christian Evangelical/conservative has made in her engagement in politics and commentary. The encounter makes all the difference. The truth makes all the difference. Truth isn’t in talking points used as battering rams. Truth is in human encounter and relationships; it’s being engaged in the dialogue with love for the other — and humanity.

Or, as Jeb Bush put it at Liberty:

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.

As he later unpacks: People of the Beatitudes are people everyone can rely on, who we are made better by, who might not just save our souls, but our lives first and foremost.

He continued:

How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force. Outside these seven thousand acres of shared conviction, it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated. We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.

“These are the days,” as Chesterton remarked, “in which Christians are expected to praise every faith but their own.” He never accepted that limitation, and neither should we, least of all in reply to criticism. One of the great things about this faith of ours is its daring, untamed quality, which is underrated.

As moral wisdom goes, for example, loving our neighbors seems kind of an easy call — especially if we already like them. But how about loving our enemies, too, as a bold challenge to leave our comfort zone and lift our sights to larger purposes?

As for the suggestion that Christianity is a static faith, that sure isn’t how it reads in the original. Offhand, I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than “the last shall be first, and the first last.

Likewise, is it really just some time-worn, pre-modern idea that God’s favor is upon the gentle, the kind, and the poor in spirit? An awful lot of people in our time, including a few who command armies, still haven’t gotten the news. Violence, fear, and domination are their rules to live by, as many persecuted Christians in our time can attest. And no matter what faith is professed by cruel men, if we could imprint just a few lines of truth on their hearts, surely we would start with the words of the carpenter born in Bethlehem: “Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the peacemakers.”

It’s a voice like no other, whether it is captured on scrolls and paper, or in bits of data; seen in the example of Francis the saint, or of Francis the pope; affirmed by the witness of ancient martyrs, or by the witness of martyrs dying in His name today.

No place where the message reaches, no heart that it touches, is ever the same again. And across our own civilization, what a radically different story history would tell without it. Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it’s all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence.

“No law in the world,” said Martin Luther King, “could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism.” The Christian faith, as Dr. King proclaimed, “adjourns the assemblies of the hopeless, and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.’”

So it is not only untrue, but also a little ungrateful, to dismiss the Christian faith as some obstacle to enlightened thought, some ancient, irrelevant creed wearing out its welcome in the modern world. Whether or not we acknowledge the source, Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament still provide the moral vocabulary we all use in America — and may it always be so.

Try to separate the ideals from the source, as C.S. Lewis observed, and it’s like “a rebellion of the branches against the tree.” Justice, equality, the worth of every life, the dignity of every person, and rights that no authority can take away — these are founding moral ideals in America, and they didn’t come out of nowhere.

Every day in the life of this nation, uncounted people are comforting the lonely, aiding the ill and discouraged, serving the weak and innocent, giving hope to the prisoner, and in every way they know, loving mercy and living with integrity. And all of that doesn’t happen by chance either, or because anyone has ordered it, or because there’s a federal program for it. The endless work of Christian charity in America is what free people do when they have good news to share. It’s how free people live when they have a living faith.

There are no blinders on the Christian conscience, try as the world might to make us look away from needs and wrongs, or make us too comfortable to care. Your generation is bringing the Christian voice to where it is always needed, and sometimes isn’t heard enough.

This nation’s efforts to fight poverty have sometimes taken on an air of futility, because so much has been tried and the need is still so vast. Left untried, too often, is the direct and personal attention that Christian ministry can bring. In works hardly even noticed by the popular culture, so many young Christians today are showing the way — moved not by pity for what is, but by a vision of what can be. For all who would serve the poor and homeless, you set the standard with your belief that everyone matters, and everyone has the right to rise.

Jeb Bush even raised the issue — not poll-tested to primary voters, I suspect — of “America’s environmental debates,” which “can be too coldly economical, too sterile of life, and you remind us what’s really at stake.” Christians, he said, “see in nature and all its creatures designs grander than any of man’s own devising — the endless, glorious work of the Lord of Life.”

#related#He told the graduates: “Men and women of your generation are striving to be protectors of creation instead of just users, good shepherds instead of just hirelings — and that moral vision can make all the difference.”

“In all these causes,” he said, “and others, your generation is fully engaged, acting by the light of conscience. If any spirit is to be gladly welcomed in a free society, you’d think that would be the one. At least, the Founding generation thought so when they wrote the First Amendment. But, of course, others have their own ideas.”

In the best kind of commencement speech, he showed gratitude for the graduates and what they believe in and stand for, reminding them who they are, and who we need them to be:

You also understand that some moral standards are universal. They do not bend under the weight of cultural differences or elite opinion. Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love. Wherever women and girls in other countries are brutally exploited, or treated as possessions without rights and dignity, we Christians see that arrogance for what it is. Wherever Jews are subjected to the oldest bigotry, we reject that sin against our brothers and sisters, and we defend them.

Freedom for that action is alive in our country. That’s worth campaigning for. And it’s our responsibility to preserve and nourish it.

(Watch Jeb Bush’s full speech here.)

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