WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing nagging questions about his conservative credentials, Republican White House prospect Jeb Bush will praise the power of "the Christian conscience in action" in a commencement speech at a prominent Christian university on Saturday, jabbing President Barack Obama's administration for being "small-minded and intolerant" on issues of religious freedom.
Bush is scheduled to deliver his remarks at Liberty University in rural Virginia before an estimated 17,500 students and their families. The university, founded by the late conservative culture warrior, Rev. Jerry Falwell, is a regular stop for Republican presidential contenders.
In prepared remarks released Friday, Bush charges, "Federal authorities are demanding obedience, in complete disregard of religious conscience."
"What should be easy calls in favor of religious freedom have instead become an aggressive stance against it," Bush says. "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."
The direct appeal to religious conservatives comes weeks before Bush is expected to launch a formal presidential campaign, following in the footsteps of his father and older brother. He will enter a race that includes candidates considered far more popular with the GOP's religious right.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, announced his campaign earlier in the week, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz formally launched his campaign at Liberty University last month.
Bush has struggled to win over his party's more conservative flank so far, yet he often highlights his conservative record while governor of Florida. At the time, he was a hero among social conservatives for his actions to keep Michael Schiavo from removing the feeding tube from his brain-damaged wife, Terri. Leaders in the anti-abortion movement still praise him today.
Bush only briefly touches on life issues in the prepared remarks.
"Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love," Bush says. "Wherever women and girls in other countries are brutally exploited, or treated as possessions without rights and dignity, we Christians see that arrogance for what it is."
He tells the Liberty graduates that America needs "confident, true-hearted men and women" just like them.
"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," Bush says.