Former Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush doesn’t want his Catholic faith to inform his politics. Well, except for when he does.
Speaking at a town hall campaign event in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Bush, who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, all but dismissed the pope’s new encyclical on the environment, which was leaked to the press on Monday and officially released on Thursday. In an apparent rejection of the document’s impressively comprehensive, faith-based call for Catholics to help slow the effects of climate change, Bush said that he thinks religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home,” Bush added, “but I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
While Bush seems suddenly eager to distance himself from the pontiff, he was singing a very different tune just last month, when he offered the commencement address at Liberty University. After specifically championing Pope Francis as an exemplar of the Christian faith, Bush pushed back on the idea that a politician should unconditionally cleave their faith from their legislative agenda.
“… I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith,” he said. “Whenever I hear this, I know what they want me to say. 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.”
This isn’t the first time Bush has preached this argument. As Christopher Hale pointed out over at TIME, Bush made a similar connection between faith and politics in 2009, when he was speaking to a group of conservative Catholics in Italy.
“As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” Bush said. “In the United States, many people think you need to keep your faith, put it in a security box, if you’re an elected official — put it in a safety deposit box until you finish your service as a public servant and then you can go get it back. I never felt that was appropriate.”
“That’s not to say that every decision I made would be completely in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church, but it was a guide post that kept me out of trouble,” he added, according to Bloomberg.
Granted, being Catholic doesn’t mean you have to listen to every word the pope says. The Catechism of the Catholic Church allows for freedom of conscience, and there is a long history of Catholics — both conservative and progressive — passionately disagreeing with the pope. Liberals who support climate change would be in a complicated position if they were to insist on full obedience to the pope, as that would also require the Church’s formal rejection of homosexual relationships, abortion, and contraception, among other things.
Yet Bush, who also told the crowd in New Hampshire that Francis is “really cool,” is hardly someone to buck the pontiff — he even led the U.S. delegation to the Vatican to attend Pope Benedict XVI’s inaugural mass in 2005. Furthermore, Bush’s rhetoric on faith and the environment remains bizarrely contradictory: Bush offered what appeared to be a robust defense of faith-rooted environmentalism in the same Liberty University speech, deconstructing the theological argument that humanity has a God-given right to abuse the planet — language eerily similar to a passage from Pope Francis’ new encyclical.
“America’s environmental debates, likewise, can be too coldly economical, too sterile of life,” Bush said. “Christians see in nature and all God’s creatures designs grander than any of man’s own devising, the endless glorious work of the Lord of Life. Men and women of your generation are striving to be protectors of Creation, instead of just users. Good shepherds, instead of just hirelings. And that moral vision can make all the difference.”
So what explains Bush’s sudden about-face on faith, politics, and climate? Part of the answer might be election math. Francis’ new encyclical is undoubtedly making life difficult for Catholic conservatives, who — after years of citing their faith as justification for their conservative positions — are suddenly torn between a desire to maintain their religious bona fides and a need to please Republican primary voters, many of whom oppose federal legislation that would help slow climate change. A new Pew Research poll released this week found that most Catholics think global warming is real, but things get complicated when respondents are broken down by party: Only 51 percent of Catholic Republicans said they accepted climate change, compared to 85 percent of Catholic Democrats. The spread is even more extreme when people were asked whether they thought humans are causing climate change: 62 percent of Catholic Democrats said it did, but only 24 percent of Catholic Republicans agreed.
This shines light on why Rick Santorum, another Catholic Republican running for president, has also tried to preemptively rebuke the pope’s encyclical by saying “We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.” (Santorum was seemingly unaware of Francis’ degree in chemistry.) He is joined by a chorus of conservative Catholic leaders and writers such as Robert George, who has tried to downplay the importance of the document by saying that Francis has “no guarantee of the soundness of the views of any scientist or group of scientists.”
Still, there is another possible — and far more practical — explanation for Bush’s theological flip-flop on the climate: Pressure from the coal industry. Bush met with a cadre of coal industry CEOs in the beginning of June, drawing ire from climate advocates who suspected that the business leaders might be trying to influence the former Florida governor. Indeed, a Bush spokesman told the Washington Post that he was happy to meet with the CEOs, because they are “trying to grow the economy and create jobs, something being made more difficult by the excessive regulations and repressive policies of the Obama Administration.”
Regardless of his reasons, however, the question remains: Where does Bush actually stand on issues of faith and politics, and what, exactly, does he believe in to begin with?