LYNCHBURG, Virginia — At Liberty University on Saturday, a surprise proposal got a better reception than the commencement speech by likely presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
The former Florida governor struggled to impress the evangelical audience at the university founded by Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell. That could signal trouble for Bush, who, as seen in recent polls, is already struggling to woo evangelical and far-right conservatives. Saturday’s address did nothing to change that, as the governor delivered a speech about faith and religious persecution to a subdued audience that didn’t always acknowledge applause lines.
That same crowd cheered boisterously when Falwell's grandson proposed to his girlfriend, however. (She said yes.)
Speaking at the largest Christian university in the world to a total of 34,000 in attendance and watching online, Bush's oratory was largely uninspiring. He earned the most applause for arguing that leaders must be guided by their faith – even if it’s not politically correct – but in a handful of instances, talked through cheers or waited for applause that never came.
“Our friends on the left like to view themselves as the agents of change and reform and you and I are just supposed to get with the program," Bush said during the speech. "There are consequences when you don’t genuflect to the latest secular dogmas." He argued against what he characterized as an assault on religious liberty, referencing legal battles by religious groups that refuse to provide health insurance because it could cover abortion, for instance.
The governor didn't address the issue of traditional marriage at all — something he's earned significant conservative flak for after hiring two aides who favor same-sex marriage legalization. He did, however, argue against “federal judges mistaking themselves for elected legislators and imposing restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution.”
Still, Liberty University Persident Jerry Falwell Jr. heralded the governor as a "hero" and awarded him with an honorary degree for fighting “to preserve the values on which this nation was founded," while talking up Bush's commitment to pro-life causes and education reform.
The likely 2016 presidential candidate is leading the GOP pack in terms of fundraising, but far right voters are suspicious of his more moderate views. His Catholicism sets him at odds with the evangelical movement and despite strong pro-life and values voter politics, the governor has not yet piqued the interest of the influential voting bloc.
In Iowa’s conservative caucuses – one of the best predictors of how the party’s far-right wing will vote in the Republican primary and a state where evangelicals play a big roll — he’s polling poorly.
Bush’s address isn’t a reactionary event, however: According to Liberty, Bush allies reached out to them in December to begin planning this commencement address. Speaking at Liberty has become a regular stop on the trail for Republicans in particular. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy at Liberty University earlier this year.