Jeb Bush’s speech before the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington on Friday was ostensibly about religion, but despite what the 2016 GOP presidential candidate told his audience it was also very much about politics — and clearly intended to fortify his bona fides with a powerful political subset of the Republican Party, the conservative Right.
Bush began by discussing the murder of nine black people in a Charleston, S.C., church on Wednesday by an avowed white supremacist. “This was an evil act of aggression,” he said. “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes, but I do know what was in the heart of the victims.”
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Bush went on to praise the faith of the victims, but it was difficult for reporters to get past his first comment given that accused murderer Dylann Storm Roof, who had been pictured in social media posts wearing clothes bearing the flags of the racist regimes of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, allegedly discussed plans to attack black people and witnesses say explicitly told his victims that he was killing them because they were black.
In response to a reporter’s question about whether Bush believes the attack was racially motivated, a Bush spokesman tweeted, “Of course.”
If Bush didn’t want to acknowledge as much in his speech, perhaps it’s because he knew his audience and knew that in the wake of the shooting, a strong current of thought in the conservative media and on social media involved the suggestion that the killings might have been an act of religious persecution of Christians rather than an act of racism.
The crux of Bush’s speech, though, was about religion in public life, and the long and short of it is that he wants more of it.
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Before the mostly white audience in a downtown hotel, Bush testified to his strong Christian faith and ran down a list of his accomplishments in Florida that jibe with the positions of the religious Right. He touted his work to tighten access to abortion and his move to shut down clinics that provided abortions as well as other women’s health care services.
He also spoke proudly of his decision to get involved in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead Florida woman whose husband wanted her removed from life support. Religious conservatives across the country, despite all medical evidence to the contrary, insisted she should be kept alive in a vegetative state in case of a future recovery. Bush made heroic efforts to prevent the disconnection of her feeding tube, and after failing to do so, urged a prosecutor to look into whether the dead woman’s husband had been involved in the original collapse that led to her brain injury 15 years before.
“When I was asked to intervene on behalf of a woman who could not speak up for herself, I stood on her side,” Bush said. “I stood on the side of Terri Schiavo and her parents.”
Bush said that the principles that guided him in the Schiavo case ought to be more widespread in the United States. Indeed, he said if they were, the need for government would magically disappear.
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“I think that should be the first and most important instinct, in this nation filled with charitable hearts, to stand on the side of the most vulnerable, the innocent,” he said.
“We could shut down government if we all acted on our sense of consciousness about helping others,” he continued. “If we restore that, front and center as the guiding principle of what it is to be a successful person…the demands on government would subside. We’d all be conservatives, which should be the objective — to win this fight over the long haul by creating a self-governing people again.”
Bush then rattled his way through a list of topics dear to religious conservatives.
He warned the crowd that their freedom to practice their religion in America is at risk.
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“My belief is that religious freedom now is under attack in ways that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “Whether it’s the Obama administration or just the general culture, it’s important for us to recognize that it’s been rough years for religious charities and their right of conscience in this country. There seems to be an attitude…the faithful must yield.”
He suggested that there are unspecified people out there actively trying to denigrate “traditional” families.
“In a country like ours we should recognize the power of a man and a woman loving their children with all their heart and soul as a good thing, as something that is positive and helpful for those children to live a successful life,” he said. “And while there are people that disagree with this, we should not push aside those that do believe in traditional marriage. I for one believe it’s important and it’s got to be important over the long haul, irrespective of what the courts say.”
He blamed the Obama administration for the persecution of Christians around the world.
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“Christians around the world are being targeted,” he said. “As we pull back and we don’t stand up for religious freedom, then we see what happens. Radical Islam and their adherents are now targeting Christians…Christian students being targeted in a university in Kenya…over and over and over again we’re seeing this. And where is the United States?”
Finally, he seemed to suggest that the United States needs to actively intervene to put an end to religious persecution overseas.
“We also need to support those in the world who believe in their faith,” he said. “Who will be there to stand by the side of someone who is courageously continuing to adhere to their faith? I believe the United States has a role to do that, and we’d better start doing it soon.”
Bush closed out his not-at-all-political speech by reminding the crowd for the second time that he is running for president and asking them to vote for him.
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