NPR fumbles on Jeb Bush's religious beliefs — or was that Jeb's fault?

In its look at the religious appeal of Jeb Bush -- or lack of it -- NPR mentions "religious" or "religion" four times.  But the depth in examining that faith is ectoplasmically thin.

And maybe that's the candidate's fault.

The story, occasioned by Jeb's presidential campaign speeches around Iowa, contrasts his vague, general religious talk with the spot-on evangelical language of George W. Bush 16 years prior. Jeb, who formally threw his hat into the presidential race today, is weighed in the balance and found wanting.

"Jeb Bush is certainly a deeply religious man — and he shares his brother's conservative views on key social issues," the article says. "But despite that, many religious voters view the former Florida governor with suspicion."

NPR never really says how he's "deeply religious," though.

Sitting in on a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa, NPR says Jeb's only religious remarks sounded like an "afterthought at the end of his remarks":

"Gosh, what was it, twenty years ago I converted to Catholicism," Bush said, "It was one of the smartest things I've done in my whole life."
Bush went on to say, "I believe that it is the architecture that gives me the serenity I need, not just as a public leader or in life. It gives me peace. It allows me to have a closer relationship with my creator."
It was a firm statement of belief. But it was considerably different than the almost evangelical way George W. Bush spoke about his faith during his first presidential campaign. At the Iowa Straw Poll in the summer of 1999, the future president was cheered when he said, "America's strongest foundation is not found in our wallets. It is found in our souls."

Granted, Jeb was speaking at a Catholic liberal arts college, so maybe he felt he could talk in abbreviations. But maybe NPR could have asked specifics. Maybe. There's no indication they did. Or whether there was a press conference. Would have been good to know.

Thumbs-up to NPR for the variety of quoted sources. It gets comments a political science professor and from the head of a social conservative group in Iowa. We also hear from a conservative voter who is still inspecting the candidates, and from a voter who confesses being "a little afraid of the Christian right."

The trouble for Bush is that both voters say they're leery of him. And the professor says that Jeb, unlike George W., isn't networking with churches or "getting advocates for the candidacy." Perhaps as a result, Jeb is viewed as a moderate, despite his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Jeb himself might have been vague. I recognize some of what NPR is describing from my contact with him 20 years ago, when he took part in an interfaith conference in Boca Raton, Fla. He notably reversed his stance on allowing prayers in public schools, a platform plank in his failed bid for governor the previous year.

He also spoke on toleration among various faiths, calling it a "moderate" tone. So he was effectively calling himself a moderate conservative, or maybe a conservative moderate.

Still, he sounded pretty definite a month ago, when he accused the Obama administration of using "coercive federal power" against religious groups:

What should be easy calls in favor of religious freedom have instead become an aggressive stance against it. 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. Federal authorities are demanding obedience in complete disregard of religious conscience - and in a free society, the answer is 'No.'

As numerous news media recognize, his talk -- which he gave at Liberty University -- was a clear bid for evangelical favor.

One issue, NPR suggests, is that several of the many Republican presidential candidates are making strong plays for the evangelical vote, and Jeb Bush is saying little to stand out otherwise.

In all, NPR does a laudable job of sampling Jeb's foray into Iowa. If it doesn't get a clear handle on his brand of spirituality, it may well have been Jeb's own vagary. Sort of like Dwight D. Eisenhower's quote more than 60 years ago: "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."

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