With a new political ad airing this week in Iowa, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is informally kicking off his bid for the Republican presidential nomination by casting himself as the conservative movement's leading voice in the culture war battle over religious freedom.
The ad, which was previewed for some news outlets including BuzzFeed News, features Jindal rhapsodizing — in his signature rapid-fire twang — about the sacred need to protect religious believers' "freedom of conscience," which he argues "must, in no way, ever be linked to the ever-changing opinions of the public." It concludes with a line that has become a mainstay of his recent speeches and interviews: "The United States of America did not create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America."
In keeping with what is bound to be a relatively low-budget, scrappy campaign operation at the outset, Jindal's ad doesn't have much money behind it. According to an operative at The American Future Project — the pro-Jindal advocacy group launching the ad — the commercial is debuting in Iowa with a "five-figure ad buy," meaning the organization spent somewhere between $10,000 and $99,000 to get it on the air. It will appear on cable and online and it will run for one week, according to the group.
But the ad's focus highlights a key plank in the Jindal camp's strategy to propel the conservative governor — currently polling in the low single digits — to the top tier of the Republican field. If Jindal can "own" the issue of religious freedom, his aides say, they believe he can build enough grassroots momentum among conservative Christians to break out in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses next year.
"The issue is very topical right now and I suspect it will be for quite some time," said one senior Jindal adviser, adding, "I think he understands this issue far beyond just the standard talking points."
Jindal has been out front in the religious freedom debate ever since December 2013, when Phil Robertson, the bearded family patriarch in A&E's hit reality show Duck Dynasty, came under fire for the crude quotes he gave to GQ about homosexuality. After the cable network, facing boycott threats, announced it was suspending Robertson, Jindal rushed to his defense. Though often a punchline in secular political and media circles, Duck Dynasty — with its overt emphasis on Christian faith and family values — is hugely popular among religious conservatives in middle America. It also happens to be filmed in Jindal's home state of Louisiana.
Jindal became the first politician to publicly back up Robertson, quickly releasing a statement that read, in part, "The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with.... It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended."
Since becoming the face of the Robertsons' conservative booster club, Jindal has set about expanding his religious freedom argument, speaking out forcefully in numerous public settings against legal compulsion for religious bakers and wedding photographers to participate in same-sex ceremonies, and condemning liberals who he says are trying to bully conservative people of faith like the Robertsons into submission or silence.
Jindal's argument hasn't always gotten through to the political class, where he is often viewed as a third-tier 2016 prospect prone to pandering. Last month, in a New York Times op-ed, he framed the debate over controversial religious freedom laws like the one in Indiana as a battle between conservatives and an unholy alliance of social progressives and big business. It was a uniquely populist pitch — aimed not just at social conservatives, but also blue-collar workers and middle-class Republicans who have little respect for the billionaires in their party's business wing — but the point was largely lost to the news media, thanks in part to the Times' headline: "Bobby Jindal: I'm Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage."
But Jindal's team believes his argument will resonate with the conservative grassroots — even as he competes for their votes with rivals like Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Jindal's advisers point to a speech he gave early last year at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in which he warned that Americans were mired in a "silent war" that would grow more intense as "the Obama regime" sought to transform the country into "a land where faith is silenced, privatized, and circumscribed."
Jindal's campaign is likely to be built on similarly provocative rhetoric. When The American Future Project sent its ad to reporters, it was accompanied by a quote from the group's spokesman Henry Goodwin, who said of the governor's speech, "Now, that prophesy has become reality."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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