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On same-sex marriage, Jeb Bush picks the pope over the base

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is pondering a White House run  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

With 69 words, likely White House contender Jeb Bush staked out a position on same-sex marriage that boils down to this: I'm not my brother; I'm more like the pope.

Whereas George W. Bush carried the evangelical flag on same-sex marriage, energizing a cross-cultural section of voters in key swing states, Jeb Bush has essentially waved the white flag while also nodding to his Catholic faith. The nuances in his statement were easy to miss (Democrats said the statement was a nothing-burger), but in fact there was almost something for everyone. Much like the ground staked out on same-sex marriage by Pope Francis -- the self-styled, kinder, gentler pope.

The carefully crafted statement (they always are), comes as the Supreme Court is set to weigh in on an issue that defined George W. Bush's run for a second term.

Here it is in full, released as Florida began allowing same-sex marriages on Monday:

We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law. I hope that we can also show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue -- including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty.

I reached out to Anthea Butler, a religion professor the University of Pennsylvania, to get her take, and I asked her if any "dog-whistling" was going on in the statement.

Florida's first same-sex weddings take place after a judge's ruling that a gay marriage ban is unconstitutional takes effect. (Video: Reuters)

(In his 2003 State of the Union, Bush used the phrase "wonder-working power," which would ring a bell for church folks familiar with this refrain from a standard hymn.)

"Sacrament is the code word for all the Catholics and Latinos; they understand that word very well," Butler said. "They understand that he is saying marriage is ordained by God and you have to go to church and do it. You don’t even have to pretend that it is a code word for him. He is just stating the belief system for him. The different thing is that he has to do a quick step. He has to appeal but not alienate. He is trying to hold together evangelicals on one hand, Latinos and his Catholic faith."

Holding together those evangelicals, who see the march toward legalizing same-sex marriage as an affront to their faith and a culture war worthy of a might fight, will be much trickier for Bush. He has said, quite simply, he won't join that fight.

This will put him at odds with, especially, Mike Huckabee, who has deep ties to evangelicals and has threatened to leave the GOP if party leaders bow to more a more centrist stance on same-sex marriage. (For Protestants, marriage is not considered one of the sacraments, and the phrase "traditional marriage" is much more common.)

"If the Republicans want to lose guys like me -- and a whole bunch of still-God-fearing, Bible-believing people, go ahead and just abdicate on this issue, and while you're at it, go ahead and say abortion doesn't matter either," Huckabee said on a Christian radio program in October. "Because at that point, you lose me. I'm gone. I'll become an independent. I'll start finding people that have the guts to stand. I'm tired of this."

Huckabee will likely find a good deal of company -- not only on the debate stage, but also among voters, particularly in Iowa and in southern states. With the matter of same-sex marriage likely settled as a state matter by 2015, the only probable dividing lines will be over how big a fight to wage on the issue, as well as a debate on doctrine, with a handful of Catholics possibly filling out the field.