A new poll shows the former governor of Florida, brother of President Bush 43 and son of President Bush 41, leading the field of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates. The poll comes just as Pope Francis is moving assertively, and some might say clumsily, on the public policy front, inspiring the deal between Havana and Washington to renew full diplomatic relations and preparing a papal encyclical on climate change.
Over the weekend, one of the shrewdest editors in American journalism, Matt Drudge, was linking to a Breitbart rewrite of a 2013 Miami Herald story. The Breitbart and Drudge headlines were about Jeb Bush's admiration for the legislative tactics of President Lyndon Johnson, but the stories also carried Bush's comments linking Bush's position on the immigration issue to the teaching of his own Catholic Church. In his 2013 speech at Saint Leo University, Bush said, according to the Herald's account, "To me — and I'm here at this great Catholic institution and this is what my church teaches me — it is completely un-American to require people living in the shadows."
Anyone worried that Pope Francis's outspoken liberalism will sway Bush away from conservative principles may be reassured by the former Florida governor's statement reacting to President Obama's renewal of full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Bush denounced the deal as "ill-advised," a "foreign-policy misstep" that "undermines America's credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba." The statement was framed as a criticism of President Obama, but implicit in it was a distancing from the foreign policy of Pope Francis.
Bush is hardly the only potential 2016 presidential candidate who may face questions about Pope Francis. Other Catholic Republicans include a former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum; a senator from Florida, Marco Rubio; the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, and the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. On the Democratic side, Andrew Cuomo and Vice President Biden are both Catholics.
As the candidates and the campaigns formulate their responses to questions from the public and the press about the pope, they'll want to look to three places.
The first place is the Constitution, which in its text — not even in an amendment, but right there in Article VI — says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." That's been read, correctly, in my view, as an emphatic suggestion that voters select officeholders using criteria other than a candidate's religious beliefs or practices.
The second place is history, and in particular to the tale of our only Catholic president, John Kennedy, surmounting anti-Catholic bigotry to win the Democratic nomination and the general election in 1960. Harry Truman's reported quip about John Kennedy and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy — "It's not the pope I'm afraid of, it's the pop" — may resonate with Republican voters who haven't forgiven Jeb Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, for raising income-tax rates.
The third place to seek guidance on these matters is conscience. For most modern American adults, religion is a matter not of blind obedience but of independent choice — choice of the sort that Jeb Bush himself made in becoming a Catholic as an adult. Religion may inform politics on general matters such as human dignity or even on specifics such as immigration or support for vouchers that would allow students to escape public schools to attend parochial schools. But it won't always dictate a politician's decisions on issues such as Cuba or climate change, where a Vatican view might conflict either with political reality or with a candidate's sincerely held ideology or longstanding policy positions.
If Jeb Bush manages to articulate this third point in a way that makes sense, it may even attract some voters who see how it can apply beyond religion, to other institutions and leaders that deserve respect but also the skepticism of independent thinking. Like, say, the political parties and their platforms themselves, which in certain circles approach their own quasi-religious status. It may seem like wishful thinking, but if there were ever a time for that, it's now — the campaign is just getting under way.