Jeb Bush delivered the commencement address at Liberty University on Saturday. It’s a beautifully written speech, and it constitutes the kind of thoughtful and balanced reflection on Christian faith that is unusual to find, especially among political leaders. To do justice to it requires me to quote extensively from it, so I shall.
Much of the commentary about the speech focused on Governor Bush’s defense of religious liberty, and understandably so, given the urgency of the matter. In speaking about what Bush called the Obama administration’s use of “coercive federal power” against the Little Sisters of the Poor — in which the federal government’s contraception and abortion mandate has attempted to force the Little Sisters to act in violation of their Catholic faith — Bush said this:
What should be easy calls, in favor of religious freedom, have instead become an aggressive stance against it. Somebody here is being small-minded and intolerant, and it sure isn’t the nuns, ministers, and laymen and women who ask only to live and practice their faith. Federal authorities are demanding obedience, in complete disregard of religious conscience – and in a free society, the answer is No.
But to me the most interesting parts of the address were those in which Governor Bush described how many critics of Christianity perceive it as a “backward and oppressive force… something static, narrow, and outdated… some obstacle to enlightened thought, some ancient, irrelevant creed wearing out its welcome in the modern world.”
Governor Bush described Christianity in a very different, and much truer and more textured, way. Faith doesn’t give answers to every question, he said, and it doesn’t spare us from doubt or difficulties in life. But if often awakens the conscience. “One of the great things about this faith of ours is its daring, untamed quality, which is underrated,” Bush said, adding:
As moral wisdom goes, for example, loving our neighbors seems kind of an easy call – especially if we already like them. But how about loving our enemies, too, as a bold challenge to leave our comfort zone and lift our sights to larger purposes?
As for the suggestion that Christianity is a static faith, that sure isn’t how it reads in the original. Offhand, I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than “the last shall be first, and the first last.”
Governor Bush also spoke about how, whether we acknowledge it or not, the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament still provide the moral vocabulary we use in America. He quoted C.S. Lewis, who said that trying to separate ideals from the source of ideals is like “a rebellion of the branches against the tree”, and added this:
Justice, equality, the worth of every life, the dignity of every person, and rights that no authority can take away – these are founding moral ideals in America, and they didn’t come out of nowhere.
“Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice,” Bush said, “there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action.”
In their unwillingness to bend to elite opinion, many people of the Christian faith believe thus: “Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love. Wherever women and girls in other countries are brutally exploited, or treated as possessions without rights and dignity, we Christians see that arrogance for what it is. Wherever Jews are subjected to the oldest bigotry, we reject that sin against our brothers and sisters, and we defend them.” The former Florida governor also spoke about a generation of Christians who 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.”
When you read the speech in whole, what stands out, I think, is that Governor Bush is articulating his understanding of the Christian faith in a way that is principled but not harsh, in a manner that is persuasive rather than aggressive, unapologetic and not offensive. He cares very much about the state of the culture, but he’s no culture warrior. This speech was his effort to unwind some fairly widespread caricatures, to represent his faith in a way that invites understanding rather than promotes division and distrust.
To be sure, there is a gap between what the Christian faith calls us to be and how many of us carry that out in our daily lives. We are broken people whose hearts are often conflicted and divided. And too often we use faith as an instrument to achieve other, less elevated purposes. It’s true, too, that some of the most visible and vocal Christian leaders – speaking in ways that are shrill and graceless, angry and anxious — have given their faith a bad name.
But it’s also true that for many millions of people, the Christian faith has sanded off some of their rougher edges, making them more generous and alert to the suffering of others. Having received grace, they are better able to dispense grace. They are often found volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens, befriending inner city children and the elderly, working at crisis pregnancy and drug addiction centers, helping people in other lands whose lives have been blown apart by natural disasters and epidemics. Most people of faith don’t life heroic lives or make heroic sacrifices. But their faith does make them better than they would otherwise be. It makes them somewhat more likely to extend a hand of mercy, or write a note of condolence, or offer a listening ear to people in pain and need. And in some cases we see how faith gives people the strength to face death with great dignity and equanimity, reminding them that life on this earth is but a single chapter in a much longer and glorious story.
Yes, people’s faith sometimes informs their politics. And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, sometimes – maybe even more times than you might imagine – it makes our politics better than it would otherwise be. (See William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. for more.) That is, I think, what Jeb Bush was saying in his exceptional commencement address.