Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a likely Republican presidential contender, reached out to his party's social conservatives Saturday in a speech that faulted the Obama administration for "the use of coercive federal power" toward those who resist providing contraceptives for religious reasons.
But in his commencement address at Liberty University, Bush avoided several causes that are of key concern to many in the Christian right: opposing same-sex marriage, holding the line on immigration reform, and rolling back abortion rights.
Bush chiefly stuck to broad themes of religious freedom and portrayed Christianity as under attack at home and abroad, decrying what he called "a false narrative that casts religious Americans as intolerant scolds, running around trying to impose their view on everyone."
In language that could also reflect his own dilemma trying to navigate the risky political shoals in the GOP, he added, "There are consequences when you don't genuflect to the latest secular dogmas. And those dogmas can be hard to keep up with."
Bush referred to Obama's healthcare law and the controversy over the rule requiring employers to provide full contraceptive coverage for women.
The rule has been fiercely opposed by Catholic groups and some evangelical Christians. Churches have been exempted and religious schools and charities have been told they need not pay for the contraceptives.
But some religious groups, fighting in court, say they would be "complicit in sin" if their insurers provide the coverage.
Bush said the dispute pits religious freedom against an overbearing federal government.
"As usual the present administration is supporting the use of coercive federal power," he said. "What should be easy calls in favor of religious freedom have instead became 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," he added.
Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., has become a crucial stop for candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Founded in 1971 by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, it describes itself as the largest Christian university in the world.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas launched his presidential campaign at Liberty in March.
Bush hasn't said when he plans to declare his candidacy. His advance remarks describe him as the "Right to Rise PAC honorary chairman."
Under new and looser campaign funding rules, "super PACs" may raise huge amounts of money from wealthy donors, so long as they are independent of the candidate and his campaign. Since Bush is not yet an official candidate, he may serve as an honorary chairman of the PAC.
"I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith," he said in his only reference to his presumed presidential ambitions.
"The simple and safe reply is, 'No. Never. Of course not.' If the game is political correctness, that's the answer that moves you to the next round. The endpoint is a certain kind of politician we've all heard before -- the guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses even to impose them on himself."
Bush quoted the moral teachings of lay theologian C.S. Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice, there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action," he told the graduates.