LYNCHBURG, Va. — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Saturday condemned the Obama administration's use of "coercive federal power" to limit religious freedom as he courted Christian conservatives at a Liberty University commencement ahead of a likely presidential run.
Charging that "the Christian voice" isn't heard enough in the world, the Republican White House prospect lashed out at the Democratic president's administration for "demanding obedience in complete disregard of religious conscience."
"The present administration is supporting the use of coercive federal power. What should be easy calls in favor of religious freedom have instead become an aggressive stance against it," Bush told an estimated 34,000 gathered for a graduation ceremony.
"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," he said. Bush was speaking inside a packed football stadium at Liberty University, an institution founded by the late conservative culture warrior, Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Bush, a converted Catholic, is preparing to enter a Republican primary contest that includes Republican competitors considered far more popular with the GOP's religious right. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz formally announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University last month. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have all made their Christian faith a centerpiece of prospective campaigns.
All have aggressively condemned Obama's health care overhaul which requires some religion-affiliated organizations to provide health insurance for employees that includes birth control. The measure is among several examples of what Republicans charge is Obama's attack on religious liberty.
"How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force," Bush said. "Your generation is bringing the Christian voice to where it always is needed, and sometimes isn't heard enough."
Despite nagging questions about Bush's conservative credentials, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. noted that Bush was considered a hero among social conservatives as Florida governor. He fought to keep Michael Schiavo from removing the feeding tube from his brain-damaged wife, Terri. Leaders in the anti-abortion movement still praise Bush today.
And in a reminder that his path to the presidency depends upon moderate and independents perhaps as much as conservatives, Bush concluded his remarks with a message for non-Christians.
"In my experience, at least, you generally find the same good instincts, fair-mindedness, and easygoing spirit among Americans of every type — including, of course, the many who belong to no church at all," he said.
Democrats were paying close attention to Bush's remarks.
"Jeb Bush will not win over any Virginia voters with his close-minded pandering to the right wing," said Morgan Finkelstein, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. "By supporting the Indiana discrimination law and attacking women's reproductive rights, Bush places himself firmly at odds with Virginia values."