[Bush] will be the commencement speaker on Saturday at Liberty University, the institution in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the evangelical leader Jerry Falwell. Mr. Bush has struggled with grass-roots evangelicals. In his speech, he is unlikely to wander deep into politics, but instead will focus on religion, according to people planning his speech. The structure will still allow him to discuss his opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance, and his belief in respecting religious rights.
In late March, the New York Times reported that a variety of leaders from the religious right movement believed their party "will ultimately nominate an establishment presidential candidate like Jeb Bush" -- which they don't want to see happen. Rather, leading Christian right activists said they intended to find a standard bearer of their own.
Among other things, the news was a reminder that when it comes to pandering to social conservatives, the former Florida governor has some work to do. Bush will take a big step in that direction tomorrow.
As we talked about a few weeks ago, this stop in Virginia has become increasingly common for national GOP candidates. In 2006. for example, it was John McCain delivering the commencement address at Liberty, in advance of his second presidential campaign, standing alongside the radical TV preacher he'd condemned eight years earlier as an "agent of intolerance."
In 2012, it was Mitt Romney who was eager to speak to Liberty students. In 2013, Rand Paul spoke at Liberty, presenting others’ words as his own. This year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) kicked off his presidential campaign at the evangelical school.
To reiterate a point from April, the fact that Jerry Falwell’s college has become an important GOP destination is a detail that matters.
Republicans generally don't like to talk about this, but Liberty University is burdened with an ironic name. The restrictions placed on Liberty’s students are the stuff of legend – its code of conduct dictates that students are prohibited from seeing R-rated movies, listening to music that is not “in harmony with God’s word,” drinking alcohol, dancing, or kissing. Women on campus are prohibited from wearing dresses or skirts “shorter than the top of the knee.”
At one point, Liberty even banned students who wanted to form an on-campus Democratic Party group. [Update: Though the Washington Post reported that the school banned the Democratic group, Liberty claims it merely refused to recognize it as an official student organization.]
A couple of years ago, however, Liberty announced that students would be allowed to carry loaded firearms on campus.
On top of this, there are also the jaw-dropping comments Falwell, Liberty’s late founder, made during his notorious career. The list includes Falwell blaming the 9/11 attacks on Americans.
For Falwell’s school to be embraced so completely by the Republican mainstream says quite a bit about what’s become of GOP politics in the 21st century, Maybe someone will ask Bush for his thoughts on this over the weekend.
* Correction: McCain spoke at Liberty in 2006, not 2008. The above text has been edited.