By Robert Costa
May 18, 2014

In his lone commencement address of the year, former Florida governor Jeb Bush urged students at a Christian liberal arts college Saturday to reaffirm their socially conservative values, a sign that he is underscoring his own as he considers running in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.

“Remain true to your convictions and your faith,” Bush said, speaking at Grove City College in northwestern Pennsylvania. “This may seem a little challenging today, where we have a federal government that is willingly violating the religious freedom of its citizens. But we don’t have to accept it.”

Dropping a possible hint about his thinking regarding a White House bid, Bush said “if you feel inspired to serve your fellow citizens, don’t let the ugliness of politics keep you from pursuing public office. There is always room for informed, engaged, passionate leaders at every level of government.”

People close to Bush have said his major concern about running is navigating today’s messy spectacle of Twitter wars and super PAC attacks. In January, Bush said, “The decision will be based on, ‘Can I do it joyfully?’ because I think we need to have a candidate to lift our spirits.”

But in a speech delivered to an audience full of evangelical Christians, it was the passages on faith that deviated most from Bush’s frequent talks to Republican and corporate audiences on education and immigration. The speech also comes as other potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates such as Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) are visiting with pastors in key early primary states and planning speeches to religious groups.

“We must recognize the power of loving, committed family life and strong communities as essential for earned success,” Bush said. “Finding ways to restore strong, committed two-parent family life will help break the cycle of poverty for so many.”

Bush, the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, also commented on the 60th anniversary of the landmark civil rights ruling Brown v. Board of Education, calling the case a critical moment in American history and the anniversary a reminder that more needs to be done to address educational opportunity for students with diverse backgrounds.

“Six decades later, substantial progress has been made through innovative reforms, but not nearly enough,” he said. “Yes, states have fulfilled the letter of this ruling, but not the full promise. A sizeable achievement gap still persists between white and affluent students and poor and minority ones.

“If we can get it right — where a child from Reading, Pennsylvania, has access to the same quality of education as a child from the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia — education can be the great equalizer in America,” he said.

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