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Jeb Bush draws fire for suggesting ‘women’s health issues’ are overfunded

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who has been criticized recently by some conservatives for serving on the board of a charity that gave money to Planned Parenthood, called for the organization’s defunding during an interview Tuesday with a Southern Baptist leader.

“If you took dollar for dollar, though, I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” said Bush, to the cheers and applause from the audience of 13,000 Southern Baptists during his interview with Russell Moore at the denomination’s missions conference.

He suggested other organizations would be better served with the money.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton responded immediately on Twitter to Bush’s comments.

“You are absolutely, unequivocally wrong,” Clinton tweeted.

The Bush campaign tweeted back: “What’s absolutely, unequivocally wrong is giving taxpayer $ to an org whose practices show no regard for lives of unborn.”

Nevertheless, the  Bush campaign issued a clarification early Tuesday evening in which Bush said he “misspoke, as there are countless community health centers, rural clinics, and other women’s health organizations that need to be fully funded.”

“I was referring to the hard-to-fathom $500 million in federal funding that goes to Planned Parenthood – an organization that was callously participating is the unthinkable practice of selling fetal organs,” he said in the statement.

Bush has struggled to harness the same evangelical constituency that helped to boost his brother’s presidential career. President George W. Bush drew many evangelical voters with his story of giving up his partying ways after a talk with evangelist Billy Graham.

In recent weeks, conservative media have taken him to task for the time he spent on the board of a charity run by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg that gave money to Planned Parenthood, which provides contraceptives and STD treatment  among other services. Republicans have been calling for the organization’s defunding after an anti-abortion group secretly recorded a series of videos with the organization’s medical officer speaking in a manner that critics called calllous about how best to extract fetal tissue during abortions before transferring it to research facilities.

The agency receives about $528.4 million from government sources, with the bulk of it coming from the federal government. None of that money goes toward providing abortions, which Planned Parenthood says accounts for about 3 percent of the group’s services. Planned Parenthood officials have denied accusations that they are profiting from the sale of fetal parts for research, which is illegal.

Bush’s campaign told The Blaze in a statement that Bush “did not vote on or approve individual projects or programs” while on Bloomberg’s board, which gave $50 million for a reproductive health initiative that included work with Planned Parenthood’s global arm.

In a press conference after the interview, Moore dismissed the criticisms of Bush. “I’m satisfied with the commitment he has shown to the sanctity of human life,” Moore said. “He’s never backed down from a strong pro-life position. I think it’s an ongoing discussion.”

When Bush was governor of Florida, he signed a measure requiring doctors to tell the parents of a teenager girl when their daughter is considering an abortion.

Calling religious freedom “perhaps the most important question going forward to our country,” Bush promoted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation that has been criticized by gay advocates in states like Indiana, Arizona and Kansas for allowing businesses to use religious freedom to justify discrimination.

“The next president is going to need to depoliticize this,” Bush said. He noted how florists and bakers have been under fire for declining to provide services for a same-sex wedding.

He noted the Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage decision and its potential impact on the tax-exempt status of religious institutions. “There was the threat going forward,” Bush said. “There needs to be protections across the board.” Bush also criticized the administration’s contraceptive mandate that requires organizations to provide contraceptives. Churches are exempt, but religious nonprofits must request a workaround.

There is a tendency among Republicans to gut government, Bush said, but he said society cannot abandon groups like the developmentally disabled. Of foreign policy, he said that the United States cannot abandon Israel, a comment that drew applause from attendees.

After Moore asked about videos released in recent months that have raised questions about police brutality toward African Americans, Bush said that he believes institutionalized racism is not what it was in the 1960s but “it’s a quieter, insidious form for sure.”

“I have an enormous respect for law enforcers, they have a really difficult job,” Bush said to applause. He noted his creation of the first faith-based prison in the nation.

Moore noted the relationship of Bush’s father and brother with Bill Clinton, what Bush called a “club of past presidents.”

“There’s a mutual respect,” Bush said. “But Bill Clinton is not my step-brother, just want to be clear.”

Moore jokingly voiced concern for Bush’s health, noting how Bush has lost weight on the Paleo diet, and offering to take him to dine at Chick-fil-A.

Moore also played a pre-recorded interview with Rubio where he mostly asked similar questions about religious freedom, abortion and racial justice. Rubio also discussed how the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision could impact people of faith.

“We’ve now entered a tenuous moment with the relationship between church and state in our country,” Rubio said. “If you do not agree with same-sex marriage … you are actually discriminating.”

He noted how Hispanic communities “like my own” have lacked economic opportunity. “You can’t have 100s of years of segregation and suddenly believe it’s been wiped out.”

Rubio sounded almost evangelical in his spiritual pitch. “These political issues are important,” Rubio said. “But in the big picture of eternity and salvation, it’s a sliver of time.”

Moore’s interviews took place in filled Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena at Send North America, a missions conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. About two-thirds of the participants were men, mostly millennial pastors and missionaries focused on church growth and evangelism.

Moore invited only those who had at least a 10 percent average in the polls by July 4, before businessman Donald Trump surged in the polls. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were also invited but declined to participate.

In May, Bush pitched his conservative credentials to evangelicals when he gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., focusing on religious freedom issues.

Despite his strong opposition to abortion, Bush is viewed by some on the Right as more liberal for his relatively moderate views on immigration and Common Core education and for not speaking openly about his opposition to same-sex marriage.

A significant number of Republicans have expressed concerns that Jeb Bush is too liberal, according to a recent ABC/Washington Post national poll. Of those surveyed, 33 percent of white evangelical Republican voters and 24 percent of non-evangelicals expressed concern. By comparison, 15 percent of evangelicals or 17 percent of other white Christians say businessman Donald Trump is too liberal, while 15 percent of evangelicals and other white Christians say this of Rubio.

The stakes are especially high for Bush, said Daniel Silliman, an instructor of American religion and culture at Heidelberg University in Germany, who blogs regularly about religion and culture in the U.S.

“If he can win over some of Moore’s audience, plus the business/establishment wing, it could be the winning coalition he needs,” Silliman said in an email. “He stands to gain the most from this sort of outreach, I think.”

Some Baptists have openly wondered why the two candidates were invited to a missions conference when just months before, Dr. Ben Carson withdrew as a speaker at a national gathering of Southern Baptist pastors in Columbus, Ohio.

“There continue to be perceptions in our culture that the SBC is in bed with the Republican Party,” wrote leaders of Baptist21, a group of young Baptist pastors. “Our suggestion is that we believe it would be prudent for future SBC leaders to stop inviting politicians to our meetings. Period.”

Carson was the only candidate who was invited to preach to pastors (rather than be interviewed like Bush and Rubio) and several Southern Baptists raised theological concerns because Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist. Moore, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, defended the invitation to a missions conference, saying that politics is often intertwined with missions domestically and internationally.

“There is an evangelical overreaction sometimes to the hyper political organizing of the last generation that wants to simply retreat from engagement on political issues, which I think is a mistake,” Moore said. “We must retain prophetic distance but also be engaged with the leaders who are going to be making decisions about such basic questions, such as religious freedom in the United States and around the world.”

Both Bush and Rubio are converts to Catholicism, setting the stage Tuesday for an image that would had been unimaginable just decades ago. Voters once famously questioned whether President John F. Kennedy would listen to Vatican more than he would the American people. Now those theological divisions seem to have withered as Republican voters are looking for a election win.

“I think evangelicals at this point are moving away from identity politics and back to where we were at the beginning of this country where we’re willing to talk with political leaders who we didn’t necessarily adopt as spiritual mascots,” Moore said.

Some were upset that Southern Baptist candidates like Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry were not included in Tuesday’s events. To include them because they are Southern Baptists would be saying they are looking for spiritual qualifications for office. “To do that, we would’ve turned this into identity politics. We had to have an objective standard,” Moore said.

Bush grew up in an Episcopalian family, married his wife, Columba, a Catholic, and joined the Catholic Church in a ceremony at the Easter vigil in 1995. Rubio spent some of his childhood in Mormonism before his family later joined the Roman Catholic Church. Rubio has ties to an evangelical church in Miami where his wife has attended, though he remains firmly in the Catholic Church.

“There was a time, not too long ago, where it would’ve been hard for an evangelical to support a Catholic,” said John Green, a political science and religion expert at the University of Akron. “Now it doesn’t get in the way of getting along. It’s a time of flux for evangelical voters right at the moment.”

Evangelicals appear divided between candidates ahead of the first presidential debate on Thursday. Trump leads the pack among evangelicals at 20 percent, with other candidates falling behind, according to the ABC/Washington Post poll. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (12 percent) is competing for evangelical support with Bush (11 percent), Walker (14 percent) and Rubio (4 percent).

Dean Inserra, a 34-year-old pastor of a Southern Baptist church of about 2,000 in Tallahassee, Fla., said that Southern Baptist political engagement has shifted for a younger generation.

“I think there’s such a heightened sensitivity toward anything of politics,” Inserra said. “No one is asking Southern Baptists to pledge allegiance to the GOP.”

Younger Southern Baptists don’t see winning politically as their mission, Inserra said.

“You’re not going to hear ‘I love America’ rallies at one of our conference, which you would’ve seen before,” Inserra said. “While we love our country, we see it as a mission field, not as a Jerusalem. We just think that to be truly engaged is to consider politics as well.”

Paul Jimenez, a 46-year-old pastor of Taylors First Baptist Church, a church of about 1,700 attendees in Taylors, S.C., about 1,700 attendees, said that Southern Baptists are looking for which candidates reflect their values and who can win an election.

“This signals the beginning of the sizing up of these candidates,” Jimenez said. “We’re looking for more than traditional soundbites. Do you have the weight and the will and the ability to win to carry out principles we care about? Let the examination begin.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that abortions account for 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget. It also has been updated to include Russell Moore’s correct title. This version has been corrected.

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