LYNCHBURG (Christian Examiner) -- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke of faith and the First Amendment Saturday at Liberty University where he delivered an 18-minute commencement address to a packed stadium.
"It's the greatest of all callings -- to know, love, and serve the Lord -- and it is yours by choice," Bush told the graduates, reminding them that although the faith that was "matured" at Liberty does not answer every question, it helps.
"There is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action," he said.
In describing how people often talk about Christians, Bush said, "How strange in our time to hear Christianity to be spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force."
Quoting British writer G.K. Chesterton, Bush wondered if these are the days "'[I]n 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."
Bush invoked C.S. Lewis, Pope Francis and Martin Luther King Jr., in speaking of faith as a strong force against injustice.
"'No law in the world,' said Martin Luther King, "could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism," Bush said. "The Christian faith, as Dr. King proclaimed, 'adjourns the assemblies of the hopeless, and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.'"
Bush continued: "So it is not only untrue, but it's also a little ungrateful to dismiss the Christian faith as some obstacle to enlightened thought, some ancient, irrelevant creed wearing out its welcoming in the modern world."
The First Amendment, Bush said, "Can be a religion all by itself."
Looking to real political situation involving social issues which have moved conservatives to action, Bush cited the case of Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity which objected providing contraceptive coverage to its employees – mandated by Obamacare.
"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," Bush said. "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 Little Sisters."
"Federal authorities are demanding obedience, in complete disregard of religious conscience — and in a free society, the answer is no," Bush said.
He said those who have pledged to govern without their faith are not being honest and he will make no such promise.
"The mistake is to confuse points of theology with moral principles that are knowable to reason as well as by faith," Bush said. "And this confusion is all part of a false narrative that casts religious Americans as intolerant scolds, running around trying to impose their views on everyone. ... The progressive political agenda is getting ready for its next great leap forward and religious people or churches are getting in the way."
Bush cited the case of the five pastors in Houston who were asked to turn over copies of their sermons as another example of what happens when authorities demand "obedience."
It would be better if there would be a way to "accept differences instead of exploding them," Bush said.
Bush has not yet declared whether he will run for president, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) March 28 formally announced his bid for the office from the platform of Liberty University during a chapel convocation speech. Cruz has been clear he will oppose same-sex marriage, an issue percolating before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, when Bush was Florida's governor, in 2006 he indicated he might be in support of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage – a measure Florida voters passed soundly after his term ended.
At a Florida Family Policy Council fundraiser Bush said he was moving away from the position that there was no need for such a ban. As governor, he has not endorsed same sex unions (they were illegal under state law), but had urged "respect" for all people.
In a 2002 interview with Florida Baptist Witness (a newspaper that is no longer available online, but retrieved from a print archive dated Oct. 31, 2002) then executive editor James A. Smith Sr., Bush said he did not support civil rights protections on the basis of sexual preference. "I don't believe in discrimination against anybody based on sexual preference. But I just don't think we need to codify special rights for people who are homosexual," Bush said in a question and answer style format, in a voters guide called the "Fourth Debate."