Former Florida governor and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush voiced a faith-based form of environmentalism over the weekend, potentially breaking ranks with many of his GOP colleagues on climate issues. But if he really wants to take religion seriously during his likely run for the White House, he’ll have to come to terms with his pope’s increasingly progressive stance on climate change.
While delivering the commencement address at Liberty University, Bush, a lifelong Christian who converted to Catholicism in 1995, lauded the role of faith in American history. He championed the positive influence of religious leaders such as Pope Francis, and insisted that it is impossible for elected officials to completely divorce their faith from their politics.
“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 even refuses to impose them on himself,” Bush quipped, sparking peals of laughter from the thousands of graduates in attendance.
Bush’s appeal to religion is standard fare for potential GOP presidential candidates, especially when speaking before Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school that has produced many of the Religious Right’s most influential leaders. What was less expected — and potentially groundbreaking — was how he described one of the key components of his faith: concern for the environment.
“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.”
This combination of faith and environmentalism, although common in some progressive circles, is highly unusual for a major GOP candidate, and ultimately begs the question: will Bush follow the lead of the Catholic hierarchy and become one of the first prominent Republicans to make the spiritual case for legislation to combat climate change, or is his speech just another case of religious doublespeak?
It bears mentioning that the former governor’s remarks were vague, in part because Bush has undergone something of an evolution — or, perhaps, a spiritual journey — on the issue of climate change over the years. In 2011, he hesitantly acknowledged that global warming “may be real,” but said he was unsure whether it was “disproportionately man-made” and argued skeptics have “every right” to contend that “it’s not a certainty.” And while recent weeks have seen him more willing to recognize our changing climate — he described it in April as an issue he is “concerned about” and encouraged cooperation with other countries to “negotiate a way to reduce carbon emissions” — his actual policy agenda is incomplete at best. Speaking to a group in New Hampshire last month, Bush explained his only solution to climate change was to “take advantage of the abundance of natural gas,” a position that mirrors proposals from some Democrats but still carries its own environmental risks.
If Bush’s take on the environment feels murky, his pope’s position is crystal clear.
But if Bush’s take on the environment feels murky, his pope’s position is crystal clear. Pope Francis has made headlines for his progressive take on green issues, a pro-environment legacy he inherited from his predecessors but has nonetheless made a central component of his own papacy. Since mentioning the need to care for God’s creation during his first mass as the pontiff, Francis has labeled the mistreatment of the earth a “sin,” convened two summits at the Vatican on sustainability, and is scheduled to publish a formal papal encyclical next month that is expected to instruct the world’s billion-plus Catholics to act on climate change. The pope’s zeal is backed by a growing faith-based coalition to protect the planet, with Catholics, interfaith organizations, and even evangelicals regularly pushing lawmakers to pass legislation that preserves our natural resources.
Of course, Francis’ staunch support for the earth has frustrated many within his own church, including Catholic members of the GOP, which is notoriously skittish on the issue of climate change. But a Bush candidacy that embraced progressive energy policies could still pay dividends politically: a 2014 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that solid majorities of Americans support stricter limits on vehicle and CO2 emissions, and a full 73 percent of Hispanic Catholics are very or somewhat concerned with climate change overall — a key demographic that largely supported Jeb’s brother, George W., but has since abandoned the Republican party. A slate of green policy proposals could also chip away at longstanding progressive gains with young adults, 68 percent of whom believe America should address climate change as soon as possible.
A Bush candidacy that embraced progressive energy policies could pay dividends politically.
Yet this rapidly expanding faith-and-climate-conscious electorate has yet to flex its political muscle in conservative circles, and the pope’s call for a more earth-minded faith has not been enough to change the hearts (or policies) of so many American politicians. Marco Rubio, who is also Catholic and a possible presidential hopeful, openly denied any human influence on global warming, and of the 169 members of the 114th Congress who have expressed doubts about the science behind climate change, 35 identify as Catholic.
If Bush does enter the presidential race, he could very well take this same route and walk back his climate comments to win conservative votes, as the Republican primary is historically where many moderate ideas go to die. But Bush’s take on climate change — however uneven — is already lightyears away from most Republicans, and he has rooted his support for green policies in something bigger than polls or denials of science; he rooted it in his devotion to the divine. If he backtracks on that, voters won’t just worry about his electability, they’ll likely worry whether he has become the exact kind of politician he mocked: one who plays politics with his faith.