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Jeb Bush Enters the Falwell Primary with Speech at Liberty University

May 10, 2015

During the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, Arizona Senator John McCain proclaimed Jerry Falwell an "agent of intolerance." But after losing the nomination to George W. Bush, McCain determined he would not repeat his mistake the next time around. So, in May 2006, the Maverick acknowledged he was going to what John Stewart deemed "crazy base world" to deliver the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University.
Now, making the journey to Liberty University is a rite of passage for Republican White House wannabes competing in the first-in-the-nation Falwell primary. So on Saturday, Jeb Bush followed in the footsteps of John McCain, Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal to pledge his fealty to the GOP's evangelical voters who will control his fate.
Bush's speech followed the usual script for such occasions. Echoing the words of Ted Cruz ("Religious liberty has never been more under attack") and Bobby Jindal ("The war over religious liberty is the war over free speech and without the first there is no such thing as the second") spoken to the faithful in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jeb accused President Obama of showing a "complete disregard for religious conscience." In an especially telling passage, the former Florida governor raged against the progress of marriage equality and Obamacare's contraception mandate:

"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.'"
[Emphasis mine.]

If that formula sounds familiar, it should. In his New York Times op-ed two weeks ago, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal defended his state's proposed "Marriage and Conscience Act":

The legislation would prohibit the state from denying a person, company or nonprofit group a license, accreditation, employment or contract -- or taking other "adverse action" -- based on the person or entity's religious views on the institution of marriage.
Some corporations have already contacted me and asked me to oppose this law. I am certain that other companies, under pressure from radical liberals, will do the same. They are free to voice their opinions, but they will not deter me. As a nation we would not compel a priest, minister or rabbi to violate his conscience and perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. But a great many Americans who are not members of the clergy feel just as called to live their faith through their businesses. That's why we should ensure that musicians, caterers, photographers and others should be immune from government coercion on deeply held religious convictions.
[Emphasis mine.]

But corporations are not churches. Business owners are not rabbis, priests, imams or reverends. That's why most Americans intuitively and the Supreme Court explicitly recognize the concept of a "ministerial exception" in discrimination cases brought against houses of worship, religious schools and other religious organizations. (In 2012, the Roberts Court even ruled unanimously against a teacher who sued her Evangelical Lutheran school for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for firing her after her diagnosis of narcolepsy.) As any good free marketeer will tell you, the marketplace is where buyer and seller come together--each armed with perfect knowledge and meeting as equals--to complete a commercial exchange.
As it turns out, the authors of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) will tell you the same thing. "Once you went into the commercial marketplace," the law's architect Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) explained, "It was always understood you were subject to the law there." And before the Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling declaring that privately-held businesses could refuse to comply with Obamacare's contraception mandate on religious grounds, the Supremes thought so, too.
But Jeb Bush's dangerously misguided understanding of "religious liberty" wasn't his only disturbing pandering to the graduates of Liberty U:

"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." [Emphasis mine.]

Again, if you think you've seen this movie before, that's because you have. In May 2012, Mitt Romney uttered pretty much the same line in his Liberty University commencement address accusing President Obama of waging a "war on religion."

It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government.
But from the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.
[Emphasis mine.]

On the one hand, it might seem quite odd--and very insulting--that the Mormon Romney and the Catholic Bush, neither of whom mentioned their personal religious affiliations to the audience of thousands, would elevate the morality, compassion and charity of the Christian heart over those of the millions of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist or "unaffiliated" Americans. But on the other hand, none of them will be voting in the GOP's Falwell primary.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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