church and state hi res_new

Walker HeadshotBy Executive Director J. Brent Walker

School is out, and summer vacation is here! Congratulations to our graduates — not just high school, college, seminary and graduate school but, nowadays, all the way down the line. My five-year-old grandson even had a very nice graduation ceremony as he matriculated from preschool to kindergarten!

Commencement exercises are important occasions for attaboys (and gals), words of wisdom, expressions of encouragement and challenge and, among governmental officials, public policy pronouncements. Two recent commencement addresses caught my attention because of who gave them and the subject matter contained in them. They were delivered by two brothers — both sons of an American president, one a former president himself and the other a (so-far unannounced) presidential aspirant. Yes, George W. Bush and John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush. And, both addressed, at least in part, matters relating to religious liberty.

The former president delivered an entertaining and thoughtful address at Southern Methodist University. As one would expect, there was lots of humor. He assured the “C” students that they too can become president! That drew laughter and applause. He further quipped that, “I was relieved to hear President [of SMU] Turner ask if I believed in free speech. I said yeah. He said, ‘Perfect. Here’s your chance to give one.’” [Laughter and applause.]

Turning to the more serious themes, he gave the students three reasons why they should be optimistic and hopeful about the future. In addition to the fact that they were graduating from a great university and are blessed to live in the greatest nation ever, President Bush, thirdly, said they should be hopeful because there is a loving God. He was then quick to say:

Whether you agree with that statement or not is your choice. It is not your government’s choice. It is essential —[applause]. It is essential to this nation’s future that we remember that the freedom to worship who we want, and how we want — or not worship at all — is a core belief of our founding.

President Bush went on to extol the benefits of faith, grace and unconditional love, as well as his hope that “God’s love will inspire you to serve others.” But he was absolutely clear that this was the choice of students, not the government, and even a choice about whether to be religious at all.

Good job, Mr. President. A very appropriate civics lesson.

If President Bush gets an A for that sentiment, his brother, former Florida Governor Bush — who delivered his address at Liberty University — gets a D-minus as far as his words about religion and politics and church and state are concerned.

First, he set up and then knocked down a straw man. He said that if he were to become president, his Christian faith would be integral to his decision-making. In this connection he exclaimed, “I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith.” He went on to tell the students that “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.”

I’d like to know who asked Gov. Bush that question. Of course he does not check his religion at the door when he enters public office; he need not split himself in two. Only the fiercest advocates of the separation of church and state — and I don’t know too many who fall into this category — will deny the permissibility of religion’s influence on our nation’s leaders. The separation of church and state does not segregate religion from politics or divorce religiously informed ethics from public policy. At Liberty University, at least, it made for a good applause line.

Second, Gov. Bush called for a forthright defense of our “first freedom” and deplored “federal authorities … demanding obedience, in complete disregard of religious conscience.” He lauded “Christianity as a positive force for freedom and compassion” but lamented the “hostile caricature” of Christians as “intolerant scolds running around trying to impose their views on everyone.” So far, so good.

Then, he sketched some caricatures himself — three more free and easy applause lines.
Gov. Bush cited the incident last year when Houston Mayor Annise Parker demanded several pastors who opposed her policies turn over copies of their sermons. Yes, that was a bad move on her part. But he failed to tell the students that within days, pastors and religious leaders across the religious spectrum (including the BJC) rose up in protest, and the subpoenas were quickly withdrawn and the controversy blew over.

Gov. Bush railed against judicial activism, by judges who think of themselves as “elected legislators.” But, he passed up a golden opportunity to tell the students about the counter-majoritarian nature of First Amendment rights that depend on the outcome of no election. They protect the rights of the minority, even a minority of one. Whether it is judicial activism or judicial statesmanship usually depends on whether one likes the outcome.

Finally, he cited the federal government’s attempt to require the Little Sisters of the Poor — a Catholic charity — to comply with the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act when doing so would violate their religious belief. He cast the battle as one between Little Sisters vs. Big Brother. Again, a clever applause line, but it’s not true. The administration is actually seeking to accommodate the Little Sisters and other religiously affiliated objectors, if they would register their objections in writing.

If Gov. Bush decides to run for president, I hope he will take a lesson from his big brother. He needs to understand that church-state issues are usually not black and white and the accommodation of rights of conscience sometimes needs to be balanced against the adverse effects on other people, rather than to offer pat answers and pander to friendly political constituencies.

From the June 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.