Hours after Donald Trump’s infamous tape was released, Republicans were calling on Mike Pence to replace his running mate atop the ticket. Faced with a 2005 recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, the vice presidential candidate said, “I do not condone his remarks and I cannot defend them.” Hoping to salvage down-ballot races, at least two GOP senators have proposed to write in Pence’s name on the ballot. Rumors of the replacement persisted even after Sunday night’s debate, and even after Pence tweeted his support to Trump, stating that he remained proud to stand with him as they make America great again.
As increasing numbers of Republicans look to make Mike Pence the face of their presidential ticket in 2016, it’s important to ask, what kind of leader is Mike Pence? “My Christian faith is at the very heart of who I am,” he explained during last week’s vice presidential debate. When he answered “a calling into public service,” first as a U.S. congressman and since 2012 as governor of Indiana, Pence said that he “tried to keep faith with the values” that he cherishes. Pence’s effort to marry his religious views with his politics—from abortion and LGBTQ rights to health care reform and immigration—have won him legions of conservative Christian followers in Indiana and around the country.
It also earned him a spot on this year’s GOP ticket. Trump’s choice of Pence was seen as key to help shore up the white, conservative Christians that Trump needs to turn out in November. And with last week’s misogynistic revelations—and the exodus of support from Republican leaders—Trump will need Pence more than ever.
In contrast to the brash billionaire, Pence is a former six-term congressman and an outspoken Christian, who is widely respected by Republican congressional leaders, especially House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has often been critical of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and policy proposals. Pence’s support last year of Indiana’s controversial “religious freedom” bill, which would have prevented local governments from expanding LGBT civil rights protections in that state, brought him national acclaim among conservative evangelicals who wish to reverse the tide against what they see is the erosion of America’s traditional Christian values.
“I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Pence explained in his speech to the Republican National Convention. He pledged to work in a Trump administration—“for the sake of the rule of law, for the sake of the sanctity of life, for the sake of our Second Amendment, and for the sake of all our other God-given liberties”—based upon this professed identity. A Trump presidency would mean a powerful Pence vice presidency: With so little governing experience, Trump certainly would rely on Pence. And since Pence identifies himself a Christian first, it’s worth considering, what kind of Christian is he? And how has his Christianity affected his governing?
Pence was raised in an Irish-Catholic, Democratic-voting family in Columbus, Indiana. He even considered becoming a priest. He met his wife of 30 years, Karen, at Mass at a Catholic church in Indianapolis. Yet, as Pence told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2010, during his freshman year at Hanover College, while attending a Christian music festival, “I gave my life to Jesus Christ and that changed everything.”
Much has been made of the fact that Pence at one time described himself as an “evangelical Catholic.” However, Pence has become reticent about the shift in his faith identity, according to Craig Fehrman, who wrote a 2013 profile of him for Indianapolis Monthly. Instead, he prefers to call himself an “ordinary Christian.” Pence “was torn between his family’s faith and background and a new more exciting faith,” Ferhman explained.
Pence continued to call himself a Catholic until the mid-1990s, when he began attending an evangelical megachurch in Indianapolis. In her story about Pence’s evolving faith, Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post noted that it was during this period when “white evangelicals and conservative Catholics in the United States started to realize they had a lot more in common than their more denominationally tribal parents realized.” Together, Catholics and evangelical Christians worked to protect “traditional marriage” and enforce greater abortion restrictions.
Pence earned a law degree from Indiana University in 1986 and entered private practice. After running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988 and 1990, he became the president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, part of a Koch brothers-backed network, which bills itself as promoting “the best thought on governmental, economic and educational issues” by “exalt[ing] the truths of the Declaration of Independence, especially as they apply to the interrelated freedoms of religion, property, and speech.” It was during his four-year tenure there, which coincided with this fuller embrace of evangelical Christianity, that Pence first began promoting “traditional family” ideologies and policies in earnest.
Pence then became the host of a talk radio show—“Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” is how he described his radio persona—as well as a local Sunday TV show. Pence maintained ties, however, with his former organization. In 1996, he published in the foundation’s journal an essay in which he lambasted the Republican Party’s move away from “traditional Pro-Family conservatives.” His evidence was the 1996 RNC speakers’ line-up, which included “pro-choice women, AIDS activists, and proponents of Affirmative Action.” He lamented that the GOP had abandoned the combative posture epitomized by Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the 1992 convention. Pence even included a bit of unintended foreshadowing of the rise of Trump. He wrote that not only did the 1996 RNC’s retreat from conservatism make for bad politics, it made for bad TV; “ratings were dismal,” he noted.
In 2000, Pence was elected to the House of Representatives. There he became a leader among movement conservatives committed to rolling back federal intervention in education and healthcare, business and environmental regulations. Until just last week, he called climate change “a myth” based on faulty science. In the House, he voted to block policies that would curb greenhouse gases. In 2002, he took to the House floor to call for science textbooks to “be changed” to reflect that evolution “taught for 77 years in the classrooms of America as fact” is just a “theory,” and that “other theories of the origin of species,” notably “intelligent design,” should also be included alongside evolution.
In Congress, Pence also worked to thwart advances in LGBTQ and immigrant rights and further restrict abortion access. In 2006, to justify his support for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman, Pence declared that the legalization of gay marriage signaled “societal collapse.” In 2008, Pence explained, “marriage was ordained by God and instituted in law. It is the glue of the American family and the safest harbor to raise children.” Throughout his career, Pence has often highlighted the fact that he is a grandchild of an immigrant from Ireland, and in 2006, he even backed compromise immigration reform that would have created a guest worker program. Yet he also supported legislation to build a fence along the Mexican border and end birthright citizenship. At a 2011 address at the March for Life rally, Pence said he was committed to reducing Roe v. Wade to “the ash heap of history.” He also supported so-called “personhood” legislation, which would guarantee constitutional protections to fetuses starting at conception. In 2011, Pence led the most recent effort in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood and said he was willing to shut down the federal government to do so.
In 2012, Pence was elected governor, and he has continued to govern based on his religiously conservative worldview. Though a federal judge blocked the law’s implementation, in March of this year, Pence signed a law that included a provision that aborted fetuses as well as miscarriages must be interred or cremated. Last March, he signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), backed by same-sex marriage opponents. Yet critics of the law believed it would empower private businesses to refuse to serve certain citizens simply by invoking their religious beliefs. Dozens of companies voiced their objections to the law, as did sports groups and religious organizations. Pence and the state legislature quickly caved to the pressure. They added language to the legislation that protected LBGT citizens. Yet the changes left both sides of the fight unhappy.
The RFRA fight hurt Pence’s standing in Indiana. In the spring of this year, while Pence was being vetted to become Donald Trump’s running mate, poll numbers showed that more Hoosiers disapproved of Pence’s job performance (42 percent) than approved (40 percent). The fact that he was facing such a tough reelection might be one reason why Pence agreed to join Trump’s ticket. And still, Trump arguably gets more out of the deal than Pence. Pence’s consistent record on social issues buttresses Trump’s own claim to conservative Christian policy bona fides.
And yet, Trump and Pence don’t always see eye-to-eye on key issues. “He and I haven’t spoken, and he and I disagree,” Trump said of Pence’s views on Syria during the presidential debate in St. Louis. The cornerstones of Trump’s vision “to make America great again” include plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and implement “extreme vetting” of immigrants from Muslim countries. Since becoming Trump’s running mate, Pence has given full-throated endorsements of these Trump proposals. Still, even a few days before accepting Trump’s offer, Pence refused to support Trump’s wall. And last year, hours after Trump first proposed it, Pence called Trump’s proposed ban on all Muslim immigration “offensive and unconstitutional.”
This contrast, even conflict, between Trump and Pence extends to their public personas—which was fully evident over the past week. Pence’s measured public demeanor, traditional family values, as well as his long political career, present a study in contrast with Trump, the bombastic, thrice-married, political-novice, who brazenly talks about forcing himself on women. And yet, Pence’s first—and primary—identity as a conservative Christian and the governing worldview that it forms in many ways aligns with Trump’s own view of seeing the world divided starkly into allies and enemies, good deals and bad deals, security and menace.
In this sense, both Trump and Pence are restorationists. And their restorationist visions for America are complementary. Trump’s is racial; Pence’s is religious. Together, their ticket embodies a “white Christian America” in decline, as Robert P. Jones has powerfully described it. In a Trump-Pence ticket, white Christian America not only hopes to resist the forces demographic and cultural change, but to restore white Protestant Americans (especially men) to their place of unchallenged preeminence.
According to a Pew Research survey in June, more than 94 percent of white Republican evangelicals were supporting Trump over Clinton, up from 44 percent in April during the primary contest. Picking Pence was the result, not the cause, of Trump’s growing evangelical base. Perhaps it’s fair to think of Pence as part of the political branch of Trump’s evangelical outreach, which includes leaders like Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., Focus on the Family founder James Dobson,* and Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, who all serve on Trump’s evangelical advisory board and who have continued to stand by him after the video’s release.
Pence and these leaders have served as Trump’s Christian witnesses, and Pence continues to do so for the many everyday evangelical Christians to whom he has spoken over the last few months in churches throughout the country. Since many Americans don’t know exactly where Trump stands on the issues, Pence reassures them. As he told a town hall gathering last September at a church in Meza, Arizona, “All you need to know about Donald Trump is he loves his family and he loves his country.”
Pence’s place on the ticket mollifies some evangelical concerns over Trump’s past, his inconsistent policy positions, and his temperament. And yet for many other constituencies within the American electorate, Trump’s choice of Pence as running mate presents another set of worries. If Pence becomes the vice president, just a heartbeat—or impeachment—away from the Oval Office will be a politician who, as Pence himself implied at the vice presidential debate, believes it his “calling” to legislate his religious views into public policy.
Max Perry Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of Race and the Making of the Mormon People, forthcoming in 2017. Follow him @maxperrymueller.
*This sentence has been updated to show that James Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family, but he is no longer with the organization.