If you think Jeb Bush has learned from his disastrous answer last month about invading Iraq, just look at the answer he gave on Tuesday about the environment and the pope.
Asked by Sean Hannity about Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical about climate change, Jeb responded that “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”
Intellectually, morally, and politically, that’s a dumb answer.
First, it blatantly contradicts what Jeb has done and said in the past. In 2009, he told a Catholic conference in Italy that, “As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you. 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.” Indeed, he did not. As Florida’s governor, Jeb, driven by his Catholic faith, went to extraordinary lengths—which included pressuring a circuit court judge—to prevent Michael Schiavo from removing a feeding tube from his wife Terri, who was in a persistent vegetative state. While speaking publicly about the Schiavo case, Jeb often held rosary beads. And just last month, at Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, Jeb even said religion should influence the “political realm” when it comes to climate. “America’s environmental debates,” he declared, “can be too coldly economical, too sterile of life, and you remind us what’s really at stake. Christians see in nature and all its creatures designs grander than any of man’s own devising—the endless, glorious work of the Lord of Life.” Just so long as they don’t try to reduce carbon emissions.
Second, Jeb’s answer contradicts the ethos of a large chunk of the political party he seeks to lead. A 2012 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that almost two-thirds of conservative Republicans wanted candidates to share their religious beliefs and 50 percent wanted candidates to use religion to formulate public policy. A poll this February by Public Policy Polling found that by a margin of almost two to one, Republicans favor making Christianity America’s national religion. Which means that Jeb’s newfound support for separating politics and religion is a political loser, especially in Iowa, where conservative evangelicals play a powerful role.
Third, Jeb’s answer just plain makes no sense. Where’s the line between religion that “mak[es] us better as people” and religion that “get[s] into the political realm”? In the nineteenth century, Christian abolitionists thought that ending America’s system of legalized human bondage might have something to do with the kind of people they were. Americans today who are convinced that legal abortion constitutes a modern-day Holocaust think something similar. Why is religion good when it spurs you to feed and clothe hurricane victims but bad when it leads you to oppose the policies that help create those hurricanes in the first place?
To be fair, answering the pope isn’t easy. By warning about the dangers of climate change, the Vatican is forcing conservative Catholics like Jeb to choose between their religious orthodoxy and their free-market orthodoxy. But there are defter ways to resolve that tension. When asked last month about Francis’s support for Obama’s overtures to Cuba, Marco Rubio responded that, “the pope is a shepherd of a faith. And his desire is peace and prosperity. He wants everyone to be better off” but that Francis is “not a political figure.” Rubio’s answer didn’t make much sense, but it avoided Jeb’s self-destructive musings about the relationship between religion and politics.
Ever since his Iraq answer more than a month ago, election-watchers have been waiting for Jeb to improve as a candidate. The wait goes on.