God’s Plan for Mike Pence

BotNo man can serve two masters, the Bible teaches, but Mike Pence is giving it his all. It’s a sweltering September afternoon in Anderson, Indiana, and the vice president has returned to his home state to deliver the Good News of the Republicans’ recently unveiled tax plan. The visit is a big deal for Anderson, a fading manufacturing hub about 20 miles outside Muncie that hasn’t hosted a sitting president or vice president in 65 years—a fact noted by several warm-up speakers. To mark this historic civic occasion, the cavernous factory where the event is being held has been transformed. Idle machinery has been shoved to the perimeter to make room for risers and cameras and a gargantuan American flag, which—along with bleachers full of constituents carefully selected for their ethnic diversity and ability to stay awake during speeches about tax policy—will serve as the TV-ready backdrop for Pence’s remarks.

When the time comes, Pence takes the stage and greets the crowd with a booming “Hellooooo, Indiana!” He says he has “just hung up the phone” with Donald Trump and that the president asked him to “say hello.” He delivers this message with a slight chuckle that has a certain, almost subversive quality to it. Watch Pence give enough speeches, and you’ll notice that this often happens when he’s in front of a friendly crowd. He’ll be witnessing to evangelicals at a mega-church, or addressing conservative supporters at a rally, and when the moment comes for him to pass along the president’s well-wishes, the words are invariably accompanied by an amused little chuckle that prompts knowing laughter from the attendees. It’s almost as if, in that brief, barely perceptible moment, Pence is sending a message to those with ears to hear—that he recognizes the absurdity of his situation; that he knows just what sort of man he’s working for; that while things may look bad now, there is a grand purpose at work here, a plan that will manifest itself in due time. Let not your hearts be troubled, he seems to be saying. I’ve got this.

And then, all at once, Pence is back on message. In his folksy Midwestern drawl, he recites Republican aphorisms about “job creators” and regulatory “red tape,” and heralds the many supposed triumphs of Trump’s young presidency. As he nears the end of his remarks, his happy-warrior buoyancy gives way to a more sober cadence. “We’ve come to a pivotal moment in the life of this country,” Pence soulfully intones. “It’s a good time to pray for America.” His voice rising in righteous fervor, the vice president promises an opening of the heavens. “If His people who are called by His name will humble themselves and pray,” he proclaims, “He’ll hear from heaven, and He’ll heal this land!”

It’s easy to see how Pence could put so much faith in the possibilities of divine intervention. The very fact that he is standing behind a lectern bearing the vice-presidential seal is, one could argue, a loaves-and-fishes-level miracle. Just a year earlier, he was an embattled small-state governor with underwater approval ratings, dismal reelection prospects, and a national reputation in tatters. In many ways, Pence was on the same doomed trajectory as the conservative-Christian movement he’d long championed—once a political force to be reckoned with, now a battered relic of the culture wars.

Because God works in mysterious ways (or, at the very least, has a postmodern sense of humor), it was Donald J. Trump—gracer of Playboy covers, delighter of shock jocks, collector of mistresses—who descended from the mountaintop in the summer of 2016, GOP presidential nomination in hand, offering salvation to both Pence and the religious right. The question of whether they should wed themselves to such a man was not without its theological considerations. But after eight years of Barack Obama and a string of disorienting political defeats, conservative Christians were in retreat and out of options. So they placed their faith in Trump—and then, incredibly, he won.

In Pence, Trump has found an obedient deputy whose willingness to suffer indignity and humiliation at the pleasure of the president appears boundless. When Trump comes under fire for describing white nationalists as “very fine people,” Pence is there to assure the world that he is actually a man of great decency. When Trump needs someone to fly across the country to an NFL game so he can walk out in protest of national-anthem kneelers, Pence heads for Air Force Two.

Meanwhile, Pence’s presence in the White House has been a boon for the religious right. Evangelical leaders across the country point to his record on abortion and religious freedom and liken him to a prophet restoring conservative Christianity to its rightful place at the center of American life. “Mike Pence is the 24-karat-gold model of what we want in an evangelical politician,” Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and one of Trump’s faith advisers, told me. “I don’t know anyone who’s more consistent in bringing his evangelical-Christian worldview to public policy.”

But what does Pence make of his own improbable rise to the vice presidency, and how does he reconcile his faith with serving a man like Trump? Over the past several months, I’ve spoken with dozens of people who have known the vice president throughout his life—from college fraternity brothers and longtime friends to trusted advisers and political foes. (Pence himself declined my requests for an interview.) While many of them expressed surprise and even bewilderment at the heights of power Pence had attained, those who know him best said he sees no mystery in why he’s in the White House. “If you’re Mike Pence, and you believe what he believes, you know God had a plan,” says Ralph Reed, an evangelical power broker and a friend of the vice president’s.

Pence has so far showed absolute deference to the president—and as a result he has become one of the most influential figures in the White House, with a broad portfolio of responsibilities and an unprecedented level of autonomy. But for all his aw-shucks modesty, Pence is a man who believes heaven and Earth have conspired to place him a heartbeat—or an impeachment vote—away from the presidency. At some crucial juncture in the not-too-distant future, that could make him a threat to Trump.

Pence’s public persona can seem straight out of the Columbus, Indiana, of his youth, a quiet suburb of Indianapolis where conformity was a virtue and old-fashioned values reigned. His dad ran a chain of convenience stores; his mom was a homemaker who took care of him and his five siblings. The Pences were devout Irish-Catholic Democrats, and Mike and his brothers served as altar boys at St. Columba Catholic Church.

Pence was “a fat little kid,” he told a local newspaper, “the real pumpkin in the pickle patch.”

Young Mike did not initially thrive in this setting. He was useless at football (he later sized up his own abilities as “one grade above the blocking sled”), and he lacked the natural athleticism of his brothers, who were “lean and hard and thin.” Pence was “a fat little kid,” he told a local newspaper in 1988, “the real pumpkin in the pickle patch.”

But by the time Pence arrived at Hanover College—a small liberal-arts school in southern Indiana—he had slimmed down, discovered a talent for public speaking, and developed something akin to swagger. The yearbooks from his undergraduate days are filled with photos that portray Pence as a kind of campus cliché: the dark-haired, square-jawed stud strumming an acoustic guitar on the quad as he leads a gaggle of coeds in a sing-along. In one picture, Pence mugs for the camera in a fortune-teller costume with a girl draped over his lap; in another, he poses goofily in an unbuttoned shirt that shows off his torso.

Pence wasn’t a bad student, but he wasn’t especially bookish either, managing a B-plus average amid a busy campus social life. As a freshman, he joined Phi Gamma Delta and became an enthusiastic participant in the Greek experience. Dan Murphy, a former fraternity brother of Pence’s who now teaches history at Hanover, told me that the “Phi Gams” were an eclectic bunch. “You had in that fraternity house everything from the sort of evangelical-Christian crowd to some fairly hard-core drug users.” Pence was friendly with all of them, and in his sophomore year was elected president of the fraternity.

Murphy and Pence lived in neighboring rooms, and made a habit of attending Catholic Mass together on Sunday nights. On their walks back home, they often talked about their futures, and it became clear to Murphy that his friend had a much stronger sense of his “mission in the world” than the average undergrad. Pence agonized over his “calling.” He talked about entering the priesthood, but ultimately felt drawn instead to politics, a realm where he believed he could harness God’s power to do good. It was obvious to his fraternity brothers, Murphy told me, that Pence wanted to be president one day.

Pence underwent two conversions in college that would shape the rest of his life. The first came in the spring of 1978, when he road-tripped to Kentucky with some evangelical friends for a music festival billed as the Christian Woodstock. After a day of rocking out to Jesus-loving prog-rock bands and born-again Bob Dylan imitators, Pence found himself sitting in a light rain, yearning for a more personal relationship with Christ than was afforded by the ritualized Catholicism of his youth. “My heart really, finally broke with a deep realization that what had happened on the cross in some infinitesimal way had happened for me,” Pence recounted in March 2017. It was there, he said, that he gave his life to Jesus.

The other conversion was a partisan one. Pence had entered college a staunch supporter of Jimmy Carter, and he viewed the 1980 presidential election as a contest between a “good Christian” and a “vacuous movie star.” But President Ronald Reagan won Pence over—instilling in him an appreciation for both movement conservatism and the leadership potential of vacuous entertainers that would serve him well later in life.

Murphy told me another story about Pence that has stayed with him. During their sophomore year, the Phi Gamma Delta house found itself perpetually on probation. The movie Animal House had recently come out, and the fraternity brothers were constantly re-creating their favorite scenes, with toga parties, outlandish pranks, and other miscellaneous mischief. Most vexing to the school’s administration was their violation of Hanover’s strict alcohol prohibition. The Phi Gams devised elaborate schemes to smuggle booze into the house, complete with a network of campus lookouts. Pence was not a particularly hard partyer, but he gamely presided over these efforts, and when things went sideways he was often called upon to smooth things over with the adults.

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