LYNCHBURG, Va. — The world’s largest evangelical university welcomed practicing Roman Catholic and brother of former president George W. Bush to speak to students on spiritual matters on Saturday as he considers his run for president of the United States.
Jeb Bush, a former Episcopalian, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1996—the faith of his Mexican-born wife Columba. He spoke about religious freedom in America to over 30,000 students at Liberty University during this weekend’s commencement ceremony.
“How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force,” Bush said. “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that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated.”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,” he continued. “These are the days, as Chesterton remarked, in which Christians are expected to praise every faith but their own.”
Bush made reference to Roman Catholic figures in his speech on a few occasions, stating that Christianity is “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…”
He also spoke of recent situations where the government has applied unjust requirements on religious groups, such the Obamacare abortion pill mandate, which was challenged by a number of faith-based entities, including the Catholic organization Little Sisters of the Poor.
“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,” Bush said. “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,” he continued. “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.”
While the former governor of Florida did not mention his potential run for president, he did outline whether or not he believes one’s faith should influence their decisions in government. He stated that he believes a variety of religions—as well as unbelievers—share common moral values.
“It can be a touchy subject, and I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith. Whenever I hear this, I know what they want me to say,” he stated. “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.”
“The mistake is to confuse points of theology with moral principles that are knowable to reason as well as by faith,” Bush said. “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 therefore called for unity between those of different beliefs, as well as those those who do not profess any faith.
“There is so much that we share in common, across all the lines of region, religion, and demography that are constantly being talked about,” Bush stated. “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,” he said.
Liberty University has invited other Roman Catholics to address students in the past, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Congressman Newt Gingrich, as well as Mormons such as Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney.
Some expressed concern over this pattern following Bush’s appearance, including JD Hall of Pulpit & Pen.
“It would be one thing if a speaker like Jeb Bush came onto the stage and discussed his political aspirations, gave political commentary, and provided political solutions. But that’s not exclusively what happened,” he wrote. “Instead, rather, Bush merged politics with what he calls Christianity—which problematically is the Roman Catholic church.”
“For Jeb Bush, Roman Catholicism is the same as Christianity and he’s using the terms interchangeably from an ostensibly Christian podium,” he stated. “And tragically (but predictably), no one at the Christian university corrected him.”