Jeb Bush at Liberty University: Why presidential hopefuls court Evangelicals

Jeb Bush gave the commencement address at a Christian college in Virginia Saturday, while most of the rest of the Republican presidential pack were speaking to a conservative summit in South Carolina. All are wooing Evangelicals.

Stephanie Gross/REUTERS
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stands on stage with University President Jerry Falwell Jr. before delivering the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia May 9, 2015.

In South Carolina and Virginia this weekend, Republican presidential hopefuls are wooing social conservatives – including evangelical Christians – an essential part of the GOP base.

Most of the pack is in Greenville, SC, for the South Carolina Freedom Summit – in the state holding the first Southern primary election in 2016. Speakers include Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas governor Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, former New York governor George Pataki, and – yes – Donald Trump.

“South Carolina is a very conservative state,” event co-host Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina told the Washington Post. “We, for the most part, are a Christian state. And those social values of life and marriage and other things are something that we really adhere to.”

The South Carolina event wasn’t the first where Republican candidates – declared and likely – tried to get out front on socially conservative issues. Most of them spoke at the Faith & Freedom Summit in Iowa last month.

As Politico reported, many of them “expressed support for a constitutional amendment that would allow states to re-ban gay marriage if the Supreme Court recognizes a right to such unions.”

“I still hold out hope that the Supreme Court will rule, as has been the tradition in the past, that the states are the places that get to define what marriage is,” Gov. Walker said in Iowa. “If for some reason they don’t … I believe it’s reasonable for the people of America to consider a constitutional amendment that would affirm the ability of states to do just that.”

Notably absent from this weekend’s South Carolina event was former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who went to what may be more fertile evangelical ground.

He was in Lynchburg, Va., as the commencement speaker at Liberty University, which was founded by Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist the Rev. Jerry Falwell. For years, conservative politicians have come to Liberty University to honor the school’s Christian mission and its late founder, as Sen. Cruz did when he went there to announce his candidacy for president.

It was an important step too for Bush, who hasn’t been the first choice so far for Evangelicals and other social conservatives, according to polls.

“Bush, a socially conservative and devout convert to Roman Catholicism, needs to avoid the fate of Mitt Romney, a socially moderate Mormon, who faced intense and protracted resistance from the religious right,” writes political analyst Chris Stirewalt at “The less frightened social conservatives are about the prospect of another Bush presidency, the less motivation they will have to coalesce behind a single alternative.”

This is one area where Bush’s being part of a political dynasty may help him, says Stirewalt, because “social conservatives adore George W. Bush’s, compassionate, faith-based conservatism.”

In his commencement address Saturday, Bush said, “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,” he said.

“As usual, the present administration is supporting the use of coercive federal power,” Bush said. “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.”

Recent Gallup findings show the importance of Christian conservatives to the GOP. Gallup finds that about 34 percent of the national Republican population can be described as "highly religious Protestant Republicans.”

“For the purposes of this analysis, I'm looking at Republicans and independents who lean Republican who identify their denomination as Protestant or some other non-Catholic, non-Mormon Christian faith – and who we classify as highly religious based on their religious service attendance and their self-reported importance of religion,” writes Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief.

“There is certainly not a one-to-one relationship between a candidate's own religiosity and faith and his or her probability of winning a state's delegates,” Mr. Newport writes. “Still, the degree to which candidates are already talking to and about evangelical Republican voters stands as a testimony to the perceived power of that group.”

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