Politics & Policy

Will Evangelicals Propel Another Bush to Victory in South Carolina?

Bush greets supporters in Sweetwater, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

As part of an effort to win over South Carolina’s evangelical leaders, Jeb Bush held a private breakfast meeting on May 2 with a group of about 40 pastors in Greenville.

“Governor Bush did himself a lot of good that week,” says a veteran of South Carolina politics, currently not backing any of the 2016 contenders, who was in the room. “He talked about his faith and Jesus Christ, and it was compelling to the pastors there. They weren’t all rushing up to sign on with him, but he came across as a serious guy who had really thought through issues of faith.”

One of the ministers in the room was Al Phillips, the director of missions at the Greenville Baptist Association.

“He said he had made a commitment of his life to Christ. I have, too, so I understand what he meant by that,” Phillips says. “I felt that the humility and authenticity I sensed from him came from his relationship with Christ. The fact that he practices his faith in the Catholic Church does not matter to me, as long as he has a faith relationship with Christ.”

Phillips said although Bush made a good impression, he has not yet decided on a candidate for 2016.

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His reaction was similar to that of Jason Lee, director of World Relief Spartanburg, the local office of an international Christian organization that works to help refugees find new homes.

#related#“He shared about his relationship with Christ, his conversion, and about his prayer and Bible reading,” Lee said. “As one who has been a minister over 18 years, he seemed honest and genuine about it, and I think most were encouraged by his answers and refreshed that he took questions about his faith.”

“I don’t know that the meeting changed my perception of the governor, but it made me more informed, as it was the first chance I had to hear him in person,” Lee says.

“As Governor Bush explores the possibility of running for president, he’s reached out to the faith community,” says Matt Gorman, a Bush spokesman. “Governor Bush’s faith is an important part of his life. He looks forward to talking about his record as a conservative governor with folks across the country.”

Bush’s past support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — which many conservatives view as tantamount to supporting amnesty — is a serious liability in some Republican circles, but may help him with some Christian leaders.

Bush’s past support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is a serious liability in some Republican circles, but may help him with some Christian leaders.

“I was also glad to hear him talk about immigration,” Lee says. “While it is an issue he may have taken some heat on in the past, I think that is unjustifiable since he seems to be one of the few GOP candidates to actually take a position on it — while others seem to waffle.”

Lee says Bush’s views generally line up with the Evangelical community’s views on immigration reform. He points to a March survey conducted by Nashville-based LifeWay Research. That poll found that 86 percent of Evangelicals want more border security and 61 percent support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 72 percent wanted to “protect the unity of immigrant families” and 82 percent wanted a policy that would “respect people’s God-given dignity.”

A week after the meeting with pastors, Bush gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he further elaborated on his views about religious liberty and the role of the state:

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.

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 laymen 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.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that Jeb Bush sees this demographic as a potential strength in a Republican primary. After all, both evangelical Christians and South Carolinians have been good to the Bush family in past presidential campaigns.

In 1988, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell was perhaps at the apex of his national influence, he supported George H. W. Bush, even though another key evangelical figure, Pat Robertson, was also running that year. Bush won the 1988 South Carolina primary, and his sweep of the southern states on Super Tuesday three days later all but guaranteed him the nomination. He won 81 percent of the evangelical vote against Michael Dukakis in the general election.

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Falwell also supported George W. Bush in 2000, and Dubya won over many evangelicals in the 2000 campaign when, during a debate, he said that his favorite political philosopher was “Jesus Christ, because he changed my heart.” South Carolina gave Bush 43 a key victory in his hard-fought primary battle with Senator John McCain.

Jeb Bush’s not-quite-official campaign knows a “Bush wins South Carolina” headline in early 2016 could be another decisive moment. Palmetto State pastors can expect a lot more breakfast invitations.

—​ Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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