Jeb Bush Praises 'Religious Freedom' at Christian College Commencement

Election '16

The prospective Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was one of the most conspicuous speakers as politicians stormed the halls of higher education on a weekend in which the president and the first lady were also among those delivering calculated commencement addresses.

Bush, the brother and son of presidents and former Florida governor who has not yet formally declared his run for the 2016 GOP nomination, spoke at a Christian college, Liberty University in Virginia.

His speech was more notable for location than content. Many political observers saw it as a nod to the Republicans’ evangelical Christian and conservative base, an audience some think Bush will struggle to impress.

Referencing recent political uproar against “religious freedom” laws in states such as Indiana and Arkansas that were seen by critics as anti-gay, Bush told an audience of around 34,000 at a football stadium: “What should be easy calls in favor of religious freedom have instead become an aggressive stance against it.”

He added: “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.”

George HW Bush, Jeb’s father, received an honorary degree from Liberty, and the school has become a standard GOP campaign stop: Texas senator Ted Cruz announced his 2016 candidacy there. Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell, the conservative reverend who is often credited with bringing religious social conservatives to the Republican party.

As of 2011, Liberty was the fourth-largest school in the US, with a total enrollment of more than 64,000. It has since grown to house a student body of more than 77,000, at a cost of about $34,000 per year to attend, according to Department of Education data.

The college also has a lower-than-average graduation rate than most private nonprofit US universities. In 2007, half of students obtained a four-year degree within six years – 16% lower than the national average for the same type of university.

As Bush spoke, most other Republican candidates gathered at the South Carolina Freedom Summit. Likely candidates including Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, and the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum concentrated their fire on foreign policy, criticizing the Obama administration over its attitude to Isis, Israel and Iran.

Before Bush spoke at Liberty, Obama gave a commencement address at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota, ticking the last state in the union off his presidential travel list. In stark contrast to Liberty, the Lake Area community college has a student body of 1,500 and costs $15,280 (room and board included) to attend.

Obama touted his hopes to improve community colleges nationally, and make many free. He claimed the school had a graduation rate three times the national average.

“For everybody willing to work for it, we need to make two years of community college as free and universal as high school is today. It’s the right thing to do,” said Obama, according to KDLT News.

The president paraphrased South Dakotan Hubert Humphrey, who served as vice-president under Lyndon B Johnson and in 1968 lost to Richard Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections.

The road to freedom begins in the classroom,” said Obama. “Class of 2015, you have earned the chance to walk the road to freedom.”

Michelle Obama spoke Saturday at Tuskegee University, one of America’s historically black colleges and universities, on Saturday afternoon.

During the speech, the first lady encouraged the new graduates to “chart your own course and make your own mark in the world.”

She described how the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American pilots of world war two, endured humiliating slights and how the school’s first students made bricks by hand when there was no money for construction.

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