When Jeb Bush converted to Catholicism nearly two decades ago — adopting the faith of his Mexican-born wife, Columba — he explained what primarily attracted him:
The “sacraments of the Catholic Church, the timeless nature of the message of the Catholic Church, and the fact that the Catholic Church believes in and acts on absolute truth as its foundational principles and doesn’t move with modern times as my former religion did.”
That former faith was Episcopalian, the church he was raised in.
Bush, who had lost his first campaign for governor in 1994, reassessed more than his religion in the aftermath of that humbling loss to the self-described “old he-coon” of Florida, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles. Bush had campaigned in ’94 as tough on crime, demanding that inmates work for their keep.
He underwent “`a personal transformation’ that included a reevaluation of his political, spiritual and family life,” wrote Mark Leibovich. then of the Washington Post, now arbiter of all things that are “This Town” Washington at the New York Times. His 2003 piece, “The Patience of Jeb,” noted that Bush began taking classes in the Catholic faith, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1996.
He went home to Miami to open a charter school in Miami’s inner city in partnership with the Urban League of Greater Miami, and he returned in ’98, as Chiles was retiring, to campaign as an education reformer. He won, and in Tallahassee, so did his “A-Plus” plan for education, tying state school funding to student performance.
He had come back as a Catholic — albeit one who would have to administer the death penalty in a state with hundreds of convicts on Death Row.
“As it relates to making decisions as a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” Bush said in 2009. “That’s not to say that every decision I made would be completely in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church, but it was a guide post that kept me out of trouble.”
Now, as Bush allows that he is “thinking about” running for president in 2016, we’re hearing more from him about Catholicism. Yesterday, he tweeted Pope Francis’s homily for the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.
Last week, he was praising the Catholic schools of New York, which he has assisted with some fundraising:
On Easter, he was retweeting Francis:
And earlier this month, it was that conversation with Cardinal Dolan about education reform that was on his mind. They talked about raising some money for archdiocese schools.
In a radio interview, the cardinal asked Bush about his “fascination” with the Catholic schools. “It’s the faith-driven nature of the education,” Bush said.
Now it isn’t as if Bush has suddenly gotten religion. Yet inevitably, the subject comes up as one mulls a decision such as the one Bush is weighing.
It’s been a long time since Democrat John F. Kennedy had to explain his Catholicism to a nation skeptical of electing a president pledging allegiance to Rome.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the president [should he be Catholic] how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote,” Kennedy said in an address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Yet some 47 years later, Republican Mitt Romney was still citing Kennedy during his own first bid for the party’s presidential nomination when he declared in an appearance at College Station, Texas: “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”
In modern-day American politics, it’s no longer a question of explaining one’s Catholicism to a broader electorate so much as it is convincing a certain faction of Catholic voters that a candidate sees the world the way they do. Catholics account for one quarter of the American electorate. If Catholics have been called “swing voters,” the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project has another take on that:
“Most subgroups of American Catholics have reliably voted either Republican or Democratic. White Catholics who identify themselves as politically conservative have consistently voted for Republican candidates in recent elections. And white Catholics who identify themselves as political liberals have consistently voted for Democrats, as have Hispanic Catholics and other Catholic minorities. The only group of Catholics that has been divided in recent elections is white Catholics who identify as moderates; they were closely divided in both 2000 and 2004 before swinging strongly in the Democratic direction in 2008.”
If Romney, a Mormon, was confronting the doubts of evangelical Christians during his two bids for the White House, he also narrowly lost the Catholic vote to President Barack Obama in 2012 — exit polls showed Catholics voted Obama 50 percent, Romney 48 percent. Obama won an even wider margin of Catholics during his first election in 2008 — 54-45.
In a long-running tug of war for the Catholic vote that can be traced to Kennedy’s estimated 82 percent victory in 1960, Bush’s older brother won a 5-percentage point majority of Catholics in 2004 — running against John Kerry, the first Roman Catholic Democratic nominee since Kennedy — after losing the vote to Al Gore in 2000. President Bill Clinton carried the Catholic vote twice. And so did President Ronald Reagan.
Jeb Bush, a longtime convert to Catholicism, is certain to appeal — should he run in 2016 — to those “politically conservative” Catholic voters. His party’s challenge — whoever runs in ’16 — will be appealing to those “moderate” swing-voters among the Catholic community and indeed among the American electorate of all faiths.