Mike Pence, your friendly neighborhood ‘theocrat’

The Catholic-turned-evangelical-Catholic-turned-evangelical isn’t as different from Trump as you’d think.

CREDIT : AP/Evan Vucci
CREDIT : AP/Evan Vucci

When then-governor Mike Pence bounded onto the stage at the Republican National Convention in 2016, it took him less than two minutes to mention the introduction he “prefers.”

“I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order,” Pence said, smiling out at the roaring crowd.

The line played well, but it was hardly spontaneous. Pence has led with that same quip numerous times throughout his career, including previous appearances at conservative gatherings such as CPAC.

Most political analysts argue it was precisely this kind of vocal dedication to religious conservatism that nudged Trump to select Pence as his vice presidential nominee. The contrast, they say, is intentional: The “odd couple” pairing allows a pious Pence to “balance” a turbulent Trump, with the vice president’s relative courteousness reassuring anxious evangelicals that the halls of power are in “godly” hands.

Eventually, a narrative emerged: Even if Trump’s already numerous scandals manage to somehow push him out of the White House, conservatives and even liberals could take solace in the potential of a more responsible — or at least less dramatic — President Pence.

But history suggests otherwise. Like Trump, Pence has also backed policies that sparked rancorous protests in his home state of Indiana—policies birthed from his ostensibly kinder, gentler, more “Christian” approach to politics. And while Pence undeniably differs from the president in several key ways, the precise meaning of his favorite introduction is far more complicated than he suggests.

In fact, the deeper you dig into his faith-fueled history, the harder it becomes to spot the substantive differences between Pence’s prayerful politics and Trump’s brash brand of populism.

A liberal Catholic rearing

Fellow conservatives have lionized Pence as both a crusader for white evangelical Christian values and a defender of right-wing politics, but the former governor’s origins barely resemble that of a modern culture warrior.

For starters, Pence wasn’t raised by a conservative evangelical family, but by two Irish-Catholic parents in Central Indiana, where his father ran a chain of gas stations. His heritage is deeply tied to the white Irish-Catholic immigrant experience: his namesake and grandfather, Richard Michael Cawley, emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1923. And like most Irish Catholics of the time, both of his parents were Democrats, and all six children reportedly idolized President John F. Kennedy (Pence even had a “closet full of banners and pictures” of the Democratic president, according to his mother).

It was left-wing politics, not traditional conservatism, that framed his early political consciousness. He served as youth Democratic Party coordinator for his county as a teenager in 1976, and backed Democrat Jimmy Carter for president four years later.

It was left-wing politics, not traditional conservatism, that framed his early political consciousness.

Even then, faith was paramount.

“[Carter] was a good Christian,” Pence would later explain, noting that he wasn’t yet a fan of Reagan, Carter’s opponent. “Beyond that, there was a sense of, ‘Why would you elect a movie star?’”

But while Carter was a Southern Baptist, Pence’s initial conception of Christianity was rooted primarily in his passion for Roman Catholicism. In addition to attending mass several times a week, he served as an altar boy at his local parish, attended parochial schools, and even considered a becoming a priest.

“Our life revolved around the church,” Gregory Pence, one of Mr. Pence’s two older brothers, told the New York Times.

A conversion in two parts

Despite his Catholic roots, Pence underwent something of a dual conversion after he left home for Hanover College.

The first was religious: he became friends with several evangelical Christian students, whose Protestant faith he came to admire. “I began to meet young men and women who talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and while I cherish my Catholic upbringing and the foundation that it poured in my faith, that had not been a part of my experience,” Pence said in a 2010 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

A short time later, in 1978, Pence took his first major step away from Catholicism by engaging in a classic evangelical rite — he was “saved.”

“Standing at a Christian music festival in Asbury, Kentucky…I gave my life to Jesus Christ and that’s changed everything,” he said.

As powerful as the moment was, the departure from the faith that raised him wasn’t immediate. Pence continued to align himself with Catholicism even after graduation, when he worked as a Catholic youth minister, and even applied to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. for graduate school. As late as 1994, he still used the unusual religious identity — “evangelical Catholic” — to help make sense of the tension between his old faith and his new spiritual experiences.

As late as 1994, he still used the unusual religious identity — “evangelical Catholic” — to help make sense of the tension between his old faith and his new spiritual experiences.

Pence’s other conversion was political, and far more rapid. He abandoned any lingering affinity for liberalism while in school, and launched his first campaign for Congress in 1988 — as a Republican. He lost, just as he would the second time he ran 1990, but retained a passion for politics, and eventually landed a gig as head of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. The small organization is one of roughly 50 state-level right-wing think tanks within the Koch brothers-funded State Policy Network. Conservative in scope, the Foundation lists among its goals to “exalt the truths of the Declaration of Independence, especially as they apply to the interrelated freedoms of religion, property and speech.”

These principles became guideposts for Pence, whose time at the Foundation proved formative. A detailed account of his conservative evolution can be found within the pages of the Indiana Policy Review, a seasonal publication of the Foundation filled with snarky and sometimes firebrand diatribes — with Pence at the top of the masthead.

Some were attributed to Pence himself, offering hints of an anti-media stance not altogether dissimilar from that of Donald Trump. In an essay entitled “What if they held a convention and nobody came,” Pence describes the 1996 Republican National Convention with phrases that drip with palpable disgust for the institutional party. He laments the convention’s “television ratings were dismal,” a result he blamed partly on the GOP’s failure to “represent the personalities or principles of interest to its base constituency, the modern Reagan coalition.”

But he saved his harshest criticisms for the media.

“How many Republicans would depend on the likes of ABC, CBS, and NBC to tell them about their party?” Pence writes, referring to the media as “liberals.”

“How many Republicans would depend on the likes of ABC, CBS, and NBC to tell them about their party?” Pence writes, referring to the media as “liberals.”

Other pieces were credited to the entire Foundation instead of a single writer, but still show hints of culture-warrior politics Pence would later trumpet. An article published in 1993 targeted the Wall Street Journal for attending a job fair for gay journalists, bemoaning the so-called “Pink Newsroom.” The piece referred to homosexuality as a “pathological condition” and discouraged gay journalists from keeping their orientation a secret, lest their sexuality taint their reporting with bias.

“The more extreme of the gay movement consider themselves members of a sexual determined political party,” it read.

These and other pieces didn’t explicitly list religion as a framing principle, but Pence’s political formation occurred around the same time he and his family began attending Grace Evangelical Church in Indianapolis, a Protestant megachurch affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. As other journalists have noted, shifting political winds may have expedited Pence’s exit from Catholic pews: the mid-1990s were a time when conservative Catholics and evangelicals formed an alliance to combat, among other things, marriage equality for LGBT people.

To this day, Pence is the only one of his six siblings who no longer claims to be a Roman Catholic.

Meanwhile, Pence eventually left the Foundation to create his own conservative talk radio show (the Mike Pence Show) to give his ideas a broader audience. He continued to write for the Review, but his main medium became the airwaves, where he fashioned a program he described as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”

In was in his studio that Pence became more vocal about his proclivity for fusing faith and politics. In one episode, Pence railed against Kelly Flinn, America’s first female B-52 pilot who was discharged for disobeying an order to end an affair and later lying about it under oath.

“I, for one, believe that the seventh commandment [forbidding adultery], contained in the Ten Commandments, is still a big deal,” he said. “The promises that we make to our spouses and to our children, the promises that we make in churches and in synagogues, in marriage ceremonies — it’s the most important promise you’ll ever make. And holding people accountable to those promises…to me, what could possibly be a bigger deal?”

Pence closed with a shot at then-President Bill Clinton, taking a cue from a caller to knock the Commander-in-Chief for accusations of extramarital affairs.

A deeply political faith

Pence left his career in radio to reenter electoral politics in 1999, and was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. In addition to upholding general conservative positions, he wasted little time in bringing his faith-fueled political agenda to the House floor.

Speaking with an inflection many evangelicals would recognize in their pulpits, Pence advocated in 2002 for changing science textbooks to describe evolution as merely one “theory” among many, and suggested including “intelligent design” — a school of thought similar to Christian Creationism — alongside the work of Charles Darwin.

“The truth is [evolution] always was a theory,” he said. “And now that we’ve recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask: can we teach it as such? And can was also consider teaching other theories…Like the theory that was believed in by every signer of the Declaration of Independence? The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female he created them — and I believe that.”

“Some bright day in the future, through science and perhaps through faith, we will find the truth from whence we come,” he concluded.

Pence also cited his Christianity during efforts to derail LGBTQ rights efforts throughout his time in Congress. In 2006, he described being gay as a choice, dismissing the pro-LGBTQ decisions of “activist courts” and purporting that denying same-sex couples the right to marry is “God’s idea.”

“Several millennia ago the words were written that a man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh,” he said, referencing the biblical books of Genesis and Mark. “It was not our idea; it was God’s idea.”

Pence developed a habit of citing faith — or, alternatively, “religious freedom” — while opposing LGBTQ rights legislation. In addition to endorsing gay conversion therapy and besmirching the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as “social experimentation,” he decried and voting against LGBTQ workplace nondiscrimination polices, saying it “wages war on freedom and religion in the workplace.”

He was similarly faith-forward about his foreign policy: “My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,” he said in 2002. “In the Bible, God promises Abraham, ‘Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.’ ”

Eventually, some writers stopped using words like “Republican” or “conservative” to describe Pence, opting for another moniker instead: theocrat.

Legislating religious conservatism, and then rolling it back

Pence reportedly talked less about his faith when he left the halls of Congress to run for governor in 2012, presumably to appeal to a broader audience. One Indiana reporter accused him of hiding his faith “under a bushel,” a biblical reference. While religion remained the cornerstone of his public persona, it became a more platitudinous form of public spirituality.

“I would say that my Christian faith and my relationship with (my wife) Karen are the two most dominant influences in my life today,” Pence told the IndyStar during the campaign.

Opponents of Indiana’s “religious freedom” bill protest outside the state house in 2015. CREDIT: AP /Doug McSchooler
Opponents of Indiana’s “religious freedom” bill protest outside the state house in 2015. CREDIT: AP /Doug McSchooler

Yet Pence’s conservative religious sensibilities continued to shine through in his policy agenda. In addition to backing a number of conservative laws in the state, Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) bill thrust Pence and his understanding of religion and politics into the national spotlight. Supporters of the bill openly admitted it was designed to allow religious businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, but defended it as necessary to protect “religious liberty” — a concept whose definition has long been the subject of heated debate.

The bill was opposed by a broad coalition of businesses, civil rights advocates, athletes, and, ironically, several religious groups — including entire Christian denominations. But Pence, who developed his problematic understanding of religious liberty years before, signed the bill anyway.

“This bill is not about discrimination,” he said at the time, “and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it…For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”

It was only after opposition groups such Apple and NASCAR doubled down on their threat to boycott the state that Pence and his allies agreed to a “fix” for the bill that significantly watered down its ability to hurt LGBTQ people.

Trump’s religious translator

The whole RFRA spectacle, complete with colorful protests, damaged Pence’s standing in the Hoosier State and put his reelection prospects in doubt. When Donald Trump called on him to be his running mate, the political advantages were obvious.

Less clear was how Pence’s traditional, conservative Christianity would gel with Trump, a twice-divorced man infamously inept at reciting scripture and basic evangelical principles, much less articulating complicated theological ideas. And in addition to Trump’s unusual misunderstanding of religious liberty, even Pence was appalled when The Donald first proposed his Muslim ban in December 2015, tweeting, “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.”

Yet for all the time Pence spent building up credibility — or at least name recognition — among the Religious Right, he has been decidedly less vocal about his faith since he was tapped by Trump.

Once he entered Trump’s orbit, for instance, the supposed crusader for religious freedom inexplicably abandoned his opposition to the Muslim ban. He has done nothing to prevent the administration from enacting it.

Instead, Pence has forged a new role as a loyal translator of the president’s policies, coating them in a religious veneer for so-called “values voters.” When the annual anti-abortion March for Life rolled through Washington, it was Pence who addressed the overwhelmingly religious crowd, telling them “life is winning again in America.” And when the Trump administration finally condemned anti-Semitism after four waves of bomb threats in February, it was Pence — not Trump — who visited a desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis to deliver a speech and help with clean-up efforts.

And despite valid criticisms of theological inconsistency on Pence’s part, his spiritual messaging tactics appear to be working. White evangelicals continue to embrace Trump in large numbers, and they remain the only major religious group in the country whose support for Trump’s Muslim ban has increased since last year.

“[Trump] has already got a vice president who definitely stands firm in my belief — very firm,” he said. “I believe in him. He’s a very conservative man, and I think he’ll be good for everybody.”

What’s more, many evangelicals uncomfortable with Trump say they take comfort in the counsel of Pence, who they see as one of their own. In a recent roundtable discussion on CNN, a voter from Ohio noted that as “a Christian,” he is seeing “hope” in Trump’s administration for restoring “values” he believes in. When asked what Trump has done to instill that hope, he didn’t mention Trump himself — he talked about Pence.

“[Trump] has already got a vice president who definitely stands firm in my belief — very firm,” he said. “I believe in him. He’s a very conservative man, and I think he’ll be good for everybody.”

Pence would likely agree. But his role of vice-president-as-cheerleader has already begun to obscure the personal brand of religiosity he once wore on his sleeve.

When he took the stage at this year’s CPAC, less than a year after his appearance at the RNC convention, Pence was quick to note that it was his 9th time addressing the conservative conference. But he did not pivot back to his signature canned one-liner about being a Christian first. Instead, he regaled the crowd with the benefits of Trump’s agenda, repeating no fewer than six different versions of Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

He did offer a spiritual framework as he closed — but only in ways that bolstered the president’s rhetoric. Pence recalled Inauguration Day, when he opened the Bible he used while swearing in as vice president. He said it was bookmarked to the same passage he regularly quoted while campaigning on behalf of Trump.

“In the days ahead…we would do well to remember those ancient words, that ‘if his people, who are called by his name, will humble themselves and pray, he’ll do like he’s always done, you’ll hear from him, and he’ll heal this land,’” he said, slightly misquoting 2 Chronicles 7:14.

The Pence of the past may have said more, or brought “God talk” in sooner. But the Pence of the present seems to have a new “order” of identities — one that begins with preaching Trump’s gospel.

But then, maybe part of him always was.

This article is part of an ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates and, now, the members of the new Trump administration. You can find the other articles in the series here.