It hasn’t been an easy month for Mike Pence. Yesterday he was in Philadelphia to raise money for a Republican candidate for governor and protesters swarmed his hotel with signs that read, “I Said: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” and “Soul Suckers.” Later in the day his appearance on behalf of Representative John Katko in Syracuse, New York, was also marred by protests related to family separations—and when Pence defended the Trump administration’s practice of separating families, Katko, whom Pence was there to support, openly disagreed with him.
At least last week, when he took the nightclubby blue stage at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Conference in Houston, he might have expected a friendly crowd. But as much as he held his head high, he must have known he’d nearly been disinvited. Even conservative Christian groups seem to be starting to wonder how long self-styled men of faith can stand by policies and a president that fit no one’s definition of “Christian.” (On Tuesday, hundreds of members of the United Methodist Church filed a formal complaint in church court against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an active Methodist, charging that his immigration policy constitutes child abuse, racial discrimination, and dissemination of doctrines that contradict church teachings).
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED and the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.
In Houston, before the annual Southern Baptist Conference, Virginia pastor Garrett Kell had won applause when he proposed canceling Pence’s appearance on the grounds that it could alienate apolitical Christians and Christians of color. Kell’s proposal came at a time when others in the conference—notably J. D. Greear, now its popular new president—have also been raising their voices for #ChurchToo, a growing movement in support of women who have been harassed, abused, and silenced in the church. #ChurchToo would not seem to fall on the Pence side of the culture-war ledger.
And indeed Pence didn’t mention it. Instead, on the dais, he wore his usual expression of smarmy piety. He gave a stump speech for Trump-Pence 2020 and embellished it with convincing Christian testimony.
It was fine. There’s something distinctly unrousing about Pence, as much as he moves fluently to applause lines and cites scripture without a stutter. At one point on Wednesday, he seemed manfully to try to bring tears to his own eyes, which might have briefly glistened in the cobalt-colored LEDs. Still: not a wet eye in the house.
Fox News streamed the event, and on YouTube the comments that coursed down the right of the video expressed what might be called discordant support. Sure, there was a thick chorus of “amens” and “MAGAs”—used almost interchangeably—but there were also misgivings, nervousness, wingnut stuff, and even frank dissent.
YouTube commenter Miss Construde kicked off the proceedings with an eye roll: “Oh great Mike Pence speaking to his holier than thou constituents.” Another commenter, Steve Valk, warned: “You morons knew trump was a snake when you took him into your home. Now you all you bible thumpers bow and pray to your neon God you have made.”
Mr Amerigo demurred. “I think that Pence and Trump are trying to do good in the government for God.” But then the nuance: “Unfortunately in the end they as politicians have to create equality for all even the gay and vile ones, so watch out.”
Things were off and running. Evangelicalism, never entirely cohesive, is now a house fragmented. Trump’s abject failure at Christian manhood can no longer be persuasively extenuated. And the ChurchToo catastrophe within the conference—the biggest Protestant denomination in the country, making up the majority of evangelicals—has also forced a reckoning.
As Jonathan Merritt, the son of a former SBC president, has reported in The Atlantic, the two principal architects of the modern Southern Baptist church, Paige Patterson (formerly president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas) and Paul Pressler (a retired justice of the Texas 14th Circuit Court of Appeals) have both been stripped of their Southern Baptist bona fides following their scandals.
Patterson and Pressler are linchpins of the faith, the duo that—in 1967—first contrived to move Southern Baptists hard right. They and their cohort managed to orchestrate a stealthy, slow-burn coup—a “fundamentalist takeover”—at a time when the SBC was aligned with social-justice Democrats in the style of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, then an up-and-coming Georgia state senator.
While Clinton and Carter moved into politics, Pressler became a youth pastor at the Bethel Church in Houston. He then seems to have kicked off a career parallel to his judicial one: allegedly molesting a teenager and young men. According to an affidavit filed on April 3 by Toby Twining, now 59 and a musician in New York, Pressler grabbed his penis in a sauna at a Houston country club when Twining was 18. Two other men have also alleged sexual misconduct by Pressler.
Patterson, for his part, has long made misogynistic comments about women in the church, including leering nonsense, posted to YouTube in May, about a “very attractive young” “coed” who “wasn’t more than about 16.” An even more incendiary interview surfaced online in March, in which Patterson can be heard boasting about having counseled an abused woman, who showed up to church with two black eyes, to submit to domestic violence as her wifely duty.
After the audio of that interview surfaced, more than 3,000 Southern Baptist women called for Patterson’s resignation as president of Southwestern Seminary. After some foot-shuffling at the seminary, Patterson was at last pushed out without retirement benefits in May.
None of this disgrace has passed without notice among evangelicals. The leadership of SBC also recognizes that the Conference has lost more than 1 million members in the past decade. Last year there were the fewest South Baptist baptisms since 1947—a clear sign of the church’s waning vitality.
Perhaps that’s why the other big news of the conference was the June 12 election of J. D. Greear as president. A megachurch pastor in North Carolina who is committed to reforming the SBC, Greear is also a staunch proponent of ChurchToo. He has promised to make the conference more responsive to women and people of color, including in church leadership.
So where is Pence in all this? Handpicked in July 2016 as Trump’s running mate by Paul Manafort, Trump’s crafty, now-jailed former campaign director who is awaiting trial on charges of financial crimes and obstruction of justice, Pence once offered hope that the floridly adulterous, thrice-married, locker-room pussy-grabber with a pro-choice past might be faithwashed. As governor of Indiana, Pence had impeccable anti-gay, pro-life credentials. To persuade Trump to choose Pence, according to Newsweek, “Manafort reminded [Trump] of the importance of uniting the GOP around conservative Christian values.”
The popular wisdom is that Pence has succeeded. Fully 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump-Pence in 2016. Since then many evangelical churches have turned a blind eye to Trump’s cartoonish desecration of family values. Others, following Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu, aim to make a virtue of Trump’s libertinism and cruelty, comparing him to Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, who is said to have paved the way for the Jewish exodus. Jerry Falwell Jr., the evangelical honcho, further likens Trump to Caesar.
But the idea that Trump has snowed all American Christians increasingly seems wrong. Not only is the SBC, the biggest evangelical group in the nation, poised to break ranks with Trump-Manafort-Pence “conservatism,” but Liberty University, the country’s most powerful evangelical group, also contains dissenters.
It’s easy to overlook cracks in the Liberty facade because Falwell Jr., the university’s president and son of its founder, was among the first major religious leaders to endorse Trump in January 2016. Since then he—like Pence—has been a steadfast Trump surrogate on Fox News. But Liberty, as Merritt has observed, is not just Falwell. Liberty’s board, alumni, and especially students have been uncharacteristically restive.
After Falwell called Trump a “dream candidate” in 2016, Mark Demoss, a prominent member of Liberty’s board of trustees and important donor to the school, resigned. Soon after, a group of Liberty students proposed publishing an article critical of Trump for his Access Hollywood boasts. Falwell crushed the story.
“Out of a desire to regain the integrity of our school,” several students started Liberty United Against Trump in 2016. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him,” the group wrote in a statement during the campaign. (Falwell dismissed the group as insignificant.) Many commenters on the Twitter feed of Erick Woods Erickson, a conservative American blogger and radio host who now campaigns against both Trump and human trafficking, applauded the Liberty students for maintaining moral authority when Falwell did not.
Then, last August, after Falwell gave his seal of approval to Trump’s remarks praising “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, Virginia, that killed activist Heather Heyer, a reported 500 Liberty University alumni pledged to return their diplomas in protest.
Finally, in October 2017, Falwell had Jonathan Martin, a prominent anti-Trump Christian author, escorted off Liberty’s campus and banned him on pain of arrest. Martin has resolved to fight for his faith, which he sees Falwell as having abandoned in favor of Trumpism: “It often feels to me like a whole new religion,” Martin said in an NPR interview. “It seems like with Falwell there’s no boundaries.”
Along with the media’s conviction that Trump’s base will never abandon him, the notion that evangelicals will forgive every un-Christian action by Trump—from paying off porn actresses to separating families—is tenacious. But it’s unfair to the principled Christians of this country.
“Thank you Jesus for showing Trump supporters what a fraud he truly is. Hiding behind the Lord, the flag, turning neighbor against neighbor. He’s evil personified,” said Great Outdoors, a YouTube commenter on Pence’s speech. “TRUMP HAS DONE A 180 ON ALL HIS CAMPAIGN PROMISES,” said another.
Pence is certainly the ranking avatar of Christian loyalty to an apostate. And Pence has found an ecological niche there. But—as Garrett Pell, Jonathan Martin, J. D. Greear, hundreds of alumni at Liberty University, and thousands of women of ChurchToo suggest—that rarefied and uncomfortable niche may not suit all Christians. Or even most of them.
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