Jeb Bush did something that only a few years ago may have seemed boring and unnecessary. But in the spring of 2015, it sounded downright bold. At a commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia on Saturday, he defended Christianity as good.
More than three out of every four Americans claims Christianity as his or her religion. Unlike Christians in many other countries, Christians in the United States aren’t being told to convert or die. Their biggest obstacle to attending church on Sundays tends to be brunch and more sleep. Does the faith really need to be defended?
In a world where Christians are routinely dismissed by a hostile media as bigoted, hateful and stupid, and where regular atrocities committed by Islamist extremists can’t be condemned without sophomoric references to medieval actions of Christians and high horses, it doesn’t hurt.
The context of Bush’s speech is key. He was addressing Christian graduates of a Christian university. It’s a different message than you would hear him give at a secular university. Actually, who are we kidding? Secular universities today wouldn’t tolerate a speech from anyone to the right of Barack Obama. But you know what I mean. After encouraging the students in their vocation as followers of Jesus, Bush said “there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action.” He went on:
How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force. 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that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated.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.
“These are the days,” as Chesterton remarked, “in which Christians are expected to praise every faith but their own.” He never accepted that limitation, and neither should we, least of all in reply to criticism. One of the great things about this faith of ours is its daring, untamed quality, which is underrated.
He noted that loving one’s neighbors is easy but that Christianity’s call to love our enemies is another thing entirely. (Twitter would implode if this were followed.) He said he could not think of any more subversive moral idea in the world Jesus’ that “the last shall be first, and the first last.”
Bush went on to discuss persecuted Christians, ancient martyrs and those dying for the faith today.
No place where the message reaches, no heart that it touches, is ever the same again. And across our own civilization, what a radically different story history would tell without it. Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it’s all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence.
“No law in the world,” said Martin Luther King, “could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism.” The Christian faith, as Dr. King proclaimed, “adjourns the assemblies of the hopeless, and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”
So 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.
Try to separate the ideals from the source, as C.S. Lewis observed, and it’s like “a rebellion of the branches against the tree.” Justice, equality, the worth of every life, the dignity of every person, and rights that no authority can take away – these are founding moral ideals in America, and they didn’t come out of nowhere.
Preach, Brother Jeb! I mean, there’s the pandering way you reach out to voters to encourage them to vote for you, and then there’s this type of instructional message for all those with the ears to hear it. With some nicely turned phrases and firm but charitable assertions, this isn’t merely outreach to evangelicals but a subtle indictment of much of what many Americans have come to believe about religion and public life.
Leading a charge for religious freedom
Bush’s speech then went on to note all the ways that Christians live their faith outside of the sanctuaries where they worship. As the administrative state grows into each and every corner of our lives, it tries to limit religious expression.
More than a month ago, Indiana passed what twenty other states and the federal government have passed — a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Such bills allow religious people to challenge government activities that encroach on their beliefs. They have to show that the government action substantially burdens a religious belief that they sincerely hold. And if they prove all that, it falls to the government to show that the challenged action is justified as the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. Having a RFRA doesn’t mean that you know which side wins, it just sets the terms of the debate.
As we know, a highly orchestrated campaign fought religious freedom on the grounds that it’s anti-gay. The media joined with major corporations in characterizing religious freedom — one of the most foundational principles of our country — as bigotry. And they won. Within a few short days, Indiana decided to back down on religious freedom or risk losing business.
But what seemed at first blush to be a tremendous victory for those who oppose religious freedom may not be a long-term victory. At the very least, the hysterical media campaign made average Americans realize that religious freedom is under serious threat. While people in newsrooms, corporate board rooms, and activist centers might not realize it, what happened in Indiana was deeply alarming to those Americans who do exercise religious freedom.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Much of the media coverage of Bush’s event claimed that he was “courting” or “seeking” the support of evangelical Christians. Bush is Catholic and is not currently polling well with grassroots evangelicals.
Bush has positions on Common Core and immigration that would bother many conservatives even if he weren’t part of a political dynasty. He’s made it clear he won’t be moderating his positions to appease his conservative critics. As such, a strong move on religious liberty could help him win over some evangelicals and others concerned on the topic.