On 7 October 2016 the Washington Post printed the story of Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, recorded boasting to a TV host about his lewd behaviour with women. The leading lights of the Republican Party went into damage limitation discussions that included the possible dumping of Mr. Trump. According to super-star journalist Bob Woodward, Vice-Presidential candidate Mike Pence let the Republican National Committee know that he would be willing to take Trump’s place. He was up for it. But Trump brazened it out. Four years later America’s Evangelical Christian Vice-President must be wondering if God is having another try at making him President.
Would it be so bad if Pence became the Republican candidate? It depends where you stand in the USA’s culture wars - but there will certainly have been many viewers who will have watched his performance against Kamala Harris last night, and who would have liked what they saw. Pence is in many ways a personification of Middle America, a good Catholic lad, altar boy at St. Columbus Catholic Church in Columbus, Indiana where he attended the parochial school, and one of six children in an Irish-American Democrat-voting family. They weren’t poor but by Washington standards not rich either.
In 1978 aged nineteen, following a not uncommon religious trajectory, Pence was called at a Kentucky evangelical music festival to ‘give his life to Jesus’. During the 1990s he described himself as an evangelical Catholic but began attending the Indianapolis Grace Evangelical Church, one of the mega-churches, with his wife. There is nothing phony about his faith. His support for the full raft of social conservative positions on sexuality is sincere. He follows Billy Graham’s advice, not attending events serving alcohol without his wife and not travelling alone with another woman (an old rule incidentally for Catholic priests).
Folksy Reagan and responsible Bush senior at that time did not seem so vastly different from the Democratic Party. He began his political career in 1988 as a Republican by losing the election for a Congressional seat to the Democrat contender. In 1992 Pence began trying to reach a wide audience in Indiana by anchoring a local radio Conservative talk-show. Like Trump a media profile did the trick. In 2001 he was elected to the Congress to represent Indiana’s 2nd congressional district and moved on to become Governor in 2013.
After 2009 when the Tea Party Republicans emerged as a force, his earlier religious conversion became a more important political asset. He happily hitched his waggon to the Tea Party movement and described himself as “a Christian, conservative and Republican in that order”. During 2015-2016 he backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist with a similar evangelical school background and views, for Presidential candidate and then talked Trump into selecting him as his running mate, quite an achievement.
During Obama’s two terms as President the evangelical caucus within the Republican Party felt themselves discriminated against by ‘anti-religious’ Democrats and the Washington elite. When Pence tried to enact legislation in Indiana enabling businesses to refuse services to gay customers, pressure from several quarters forced him to amend it. Pence’s argument that this was a matter of religious freedom did him no harm amongst conservative evangelical and catholic voters. Neither did his support for school prayers, his attempts to curtail sex education and his advocacy of censorship of pornography. In the words of Richard Land, President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, Pence was ‘the 24-carat-gold model of what we want in an evangelical politician”.
But what could be expected from a 24-carat gold evangelical politician? The grim expression on his face while Trump rambled on behind podium after podium gave some indication that he has not found the role of abject, loyal Trump defender pleasant. But in public he espouses the full litany of right-wing Republican or Trump positions, from Climate Change denial and support for the gun lobby to opposition to immigration and ‘Obama-care’. He has voted accordingly. Far from dealing with his personal faith in the manner of John F. Kennedy, dissociating public position and policy from private religious belief, the evangelicals around Trump see the White House as the engine room of the United States’ salvation in a permanent conflict between the children of light and the children of darkness.
The religious contribution to the Trump team’s ideological armoury is not negligible. In 1996 Pastor Ralph Drollinger and his wife Danielle founded Capitol Ministries “to create disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena throughout the world” at the same time insisting: “we stay away from politics and concentrate on the hearts of leaders”. The pastor leads a weekly Bible study in the White House for the President’s entourage. This is the religious world Pence inhabits. Dollinger believes that the USA is in dire straits and doesn’t think it can be turned around ‘if we don’t have almost a benevolent dictator’. Who can he be talking about?
The other deeply worrying aspect of the evangelical influence in the White House is how much Pence – and Pompeo as Secretary of State – conflate their faith assumptions with foreign policy. Israel features both in the Bible and within the critical geo-political problems besetting the Middle East. Christian Zionism brings the two together with Israel at its heart. But relying on biblical verses on Israel such as ‘those who bless her bless us’ as the rationale of US policy shows scant regard both for how to read the Old Testament and how to frame a Middle East policy. Even worse, the role of Israel in the Book of the Apocalypse and in the final war before the Second Coming of Christ it describes encourages potentially catastrophic belligerence towards Iran.
It is surprising that during the radical papacy of Francis Pence may now be signalling a return to the Catholic fold. He had a long, one hour, and apparently warm meeting with the Pope in January this year. Were the ballot box and the ‘Chinese virus’ to bring him to the Presidency, let’s hope that, if a nuclear war between Israel and Iran threatens, he doesn’t believe it’s the end of the world and he will be beamed up to heaven in The Rapture.
And let’s pray that he goes back to the boring-old Catholicism he learnt at St. Columbus Church School where faith and reason go together.