Mike Pence and the evangelical fantasy of persecution
It has become something of a commonplace to say that Mike Pence belongs to another era. He is a politician whom the New York Times has called a “throwback,” a “conservative proudly out of sync with his times,” and a “dangerous anachronism,” a man whose social policies and outspoken Christian faith are so redolent of the previous century’s culture wars that he appeared to have no future until, in the words of one journalist, he was plucked “off the political garbage heap” by Donald Trump and given new life. Pence’s rise to the vice presidency was not merely a personal advancement; it marked the return of religion and ideology to American politics at a time when the titles of political analyses were proclaiming the Twilight of Social Conservatism (2015) and the End of White Christian America (2016). It revealed the furious persistence of the religious right, an entity whose final demise was for so long considered imminent that even as white evangelicals came out in droves to support the Trump-Pence ticket, their enthusiasm was dismissed, in the Washington Post, as the movement’s “last spastic breath.”
But Pence is a curious kind of Christian politician. He is more fixated on theological arcana than on the Bible’s greatest hits (the Ten Commandments, the beatitudes). His faith is not that of Mike Huckabee, say, whose folksy Christian nationalism is reflected in the title of his book God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy; nor is it the humble self-help Methodism to which George W. Bush once deferred (at least in his early years, before his faith was hijacked by a geopolitical crusade), speaking of Jesus as the guy who had “changed my heart.” Indeed, the most peculiar thing about Pence’s Christianity is how rarely he mentions the teachings of Christ. Despite his fluency with Scripture, he seldom quotes the Gospels. He speaks fondly not just of the Good Book but also of the Old Book, by which he usually means the Hebrew Bible, and it is this earlier testament that he draws from in his speeches, often with the preface that it contains “ancient truths” that are “as true today as they were in millennia past.”
Pence does live in the past, a past far more ancient than anyone has assumed. He speaks of the Old Testament as familiar terrain and regards its covenants as deeply relevant to evangelicals. The God of these stories is not the familiar, tranquilized Jesus of hymns and dashboard figurines but the more forbidding Yahweh who disciplines and delivers the nation of Israel. The God of Mike Pence is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a God who sets up kings and tears them down, who raises the poor from the dust and lifts up the needy, who pulls candidates off the political garbage heap and allows them to rule with princes. He is a God who keeps his promises, and the promise, throughout the ages, has always been the same: that the Chosen People will be restored to their rightful home.
The biblical concept of exile—a banishment followed by a return to the homeland—has lately acquired special meaning for evangelicals. The term inundated Christian discourse in the United States following the failure of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Pence, then the governor, signed in 2015, soon after a judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The bill, which would have allowed businesspeople such as florists and caterers to refuse to serve gay clients, inspired a national boycott and culminated in a disastrous appearance on George Stephanopoulos’s This Week, in which Pence evaded question after question and stammered about open-mindedness being a two-way street. “From people who preach tolerance every day,” he said, “we have been under an avalanche of intolerance.” Pence was forced to neuter the bill, and the ordeal soon fell out of the news cycle.