March 30, 2015


GOD AND JEB : Inside his spiritual journey and his stealth campaign to woo Christian conservatives. (TIM ALBERTA AND TIFFANY STANLEY, 3/29/15, National Journal)

Two weeks after his defeat, Bush went to Miami's Church of the Epiphany and began the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults--a months-long process that required him to go to confession, find a sponsor, and attend weekly courses on church doctrine and practice. He later told a Florida Catholic newspaper that the process allowed him "to take some time to pause and reflect"; this wasn't the kind of dramatic, "I was blind, but now I see" conversion that his brother had experienced. On Easter weekend of 1995, Bush was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. In the years since, he has said that he finds the tradition's sacraments comforting and that his "faith was strengthened when I converted to my wife's faith." Between his first two campaigns, Bush continued his previous work in real estate, but he also helped start a charter school in a struggling Miami neighborhood. He cowrote a book, Profiles in Character, which cribbed its title and premise from Profiles in Courage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of America's only Catholic president, John Kennedy. Bush dedicated the book to his family, and "to God, whose divine and guiding light is the ultimate means to virtue."

"I think he grew spiritually in that decade of the '90s," says Al Cardenas, the former American Conservative Union chairman who has known Bush for almost four decades. "It made him a better husband and dad. I saw that before my very eyes."

It also made him a different politician. When he tried again for governor in 1998, Bush was no longer the same combative, even angry, candidate he'd been four years earlier. His stances had changed little, but his tone was softer, his outlook more--well--compassionate. Bush explained to a St. Petersburg Times reporter that his Catholic commitment changed the tenor of his campaigning. "It's softened it in the sense that it is a position of love, not of intolerance," he said. "It is a deeper belief about the value and sanctity of life itself." This time, he campaigned vigorously in black churches. He talked of his conversion and caring for the poor. "He certainly was a different candidate, but he seemed to some degree to be a different person as well," says Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida. He won easily, by 11 percentage points. At Bush's inauguration, the Rev. Billy Graham prayed that the new governor would lead Florida in "a moral and spiritual awakening."

Gov. Bush seemed bent on doing just that, and in the process, he pioneered new ways to infuse Christian faith into state government. "Jeb connected his moral and religious beliefs to his public policies more openly than a lot of people," says Matthew Corrigan, a political-science professor at the University of North Florida. Nowhere was this more evident than in his pro-life work. (Bush would later tell the Christian Broadcasting Network that his faith informed him about "the dignity of life more than anything else.") During his first year in office, he made good on a campaign promise, signing into law a controversial bill that created "Choose Life" license plates whose proceeds benefited crisis-pregnancy centers that encouraged women to choose adoption over abortion. Bush went on to push for a "partial-birth" abortion ban, and for legislation requiring doctors to notify the parents of girls under 18 at least two days before an abortion procedure. He signed both laws, but they were blocked by courts. Subsequently, however, Bush and conservative lawmakers got parental notification on the state ballot, and voters changed the Florida constitution to allow it to go forward. The governor happily signed parental notification into law in 2005.

Bush was not averse to deviating from Catholic doctrine at times. He supported the death penalty, despite sustained lobbying from Catholic bishops. His pro-business policies were a far cry from the papacy's blistering critiques of capitalism, though they lined up neatly with those of most Christian conservatives in the United States. (More recently, Bush, who has been known to tweet praise for Pope Francis, has publicly criticized the U.S. deal with Cuba, which the pontiff helped broker.) Former colleagues and staffers say the governor was private about his Catholicism on the job, but the signs were there--in the rosary he was known to carry, or in the Bible he kept in his second office, where he did most of his work. State Rep. Dennis Baxley, the dean of the Florida Legislature's social conservatives, took comfort in the fact that Bush's Bible was usually open at a different chapter and verse each time he visited. "It was used," he says. "It wasn't a decoration."

Indeed, Florida's faith community could find little fault with Bush as governor. His great ambition was to leave a lasting mark on education, and he delighted social conservatives by championing school choice. He created the country's first statewide voucher system, despite legal challenges and heavy criticism from the ACLU and other champions of church-state separation. (Part of the original plan was declared unconstitutional, and rebooted as a tax-credit program.) After his brother opened the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Jeb created a similar board at the state level. He also converted three correctional facilities into faith-based prisons--the first of their kind in the nation--that used religious programs to promote rehabilitation. And whenever he made a key appointment, it seemed, Bush turned to prominent social conservatives. He tapped Patricia Levesque, a graduate of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, as his education adviser (she still leads his two education nonprofits). He appointed Bob Brooks, a state lawmaker and physician well-known for opposing abortion and homosexuality, to serve as Florida's health secretary. The first president of the Family Research Council, a mainstay of the Christian Right lobby in Washington, headed Bush's Department of Children and Families. Prominent activists from Focus on the Family and the Liberty Counsel (a conservative Christian law firm) were placed on the state nominating commissions that recommend judges for the governor to appoint.

But it was the strange case of Terri Schiavo where Bush's faith emerged most publicly.

Posted by at March 30, 2015 2:15 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus