Bush’s Catholic faith a focal point in possible run

Jeb Bush and his daughter, Noelle, left, at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, Fla.
Jeb Bush and his daughter, Noelle, left, at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, Fla. NEW YORK TIMES

Twenty years after Jeb Bush converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, his faith has become a central element of the way he shapes his life and frames his views on public policy.

And now, as he explores a bid for the presidency, his religion has become a focal point of early appeals to evangelical activists, who are particularly important in a Republican primary.

Many of his priorities during his two terms as governor of Florida aligned with those of the Catholic Church, including his extraordinary, and unsuccessful, effort to force a hospital to keep Terri Schiavo on life support. He differed from his church, significantly and openly, over capital punishment; 21 prisoners were executed by the state on his watch. But he has also won praise from Catholic officials for his welcoming tone toward immigrants, and his relatively centrist positions on education – two issues in which he is at odds with the right wing of his party.

“As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” Bush said in Italy in 2009, explaining his attitude about the relationship between religion and politics.

Like his brother George W. Bush, who established the White House office on faith-based initiatives, Jeb Bush was a champion of faith-based social services as governor. He has said his religious beliefs helped inform his concern about child welfare and other issues.

Bush, who was baptized in the Episcopal Church, began his journey to Catholicism inadvertently, when, as a high school exchange student in Mexico, he met and fell in love with Columba Garnica Gallo, a committed Catholic. Jeb and Columba Bush raised their three children as Catholics, and Bush went to Mass with his family.

“It played an important part in our lives,” he said by email.

In 1994, Bush ran unsuccessfully for governor. After his defeat, he began the formal process of becoming a Catholic. Bush was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter vigil of 1995. His second campaign for governor, in 1998, was characterized by modulated language; he trumpeted a newfound compassion, and won.

“His campaign was still very conservative, but much more moderate in tone – clearly, he had a different perspective,” said Matthew Corrigan, the author of a biography of Bush. “If you look at his policy positions, you can see a strong connection to his new faith.”