Will the vice president—and the religious right—be rewarded for their embrace of Donald Trump?
Casting himself as the heir to the popular outgoing governor, Mitch Daniels, he avoided social issues and ran on a pragmatic, business-friendly platform. He used Ronald Reagan as a political style guru and told his ad makers that he wanted his campaign commercials to have “that ‘Morning in America’ feel.” He meticulously fine-tuned early cuts of the ads, asking his consultants to edit this or reframe that or zoom in here instead of there.
.. set about cutting taxes and taking on local unions—burnishing a résumé that would impress Republican donors and Iowa caucus-goers. The governor’s stock began to rise in Washington
.. In recent years, the religious right had been abruptly forced to pivot from offense to defense in the culture wars—abandoning the “family values” crusades and talk of “remoralizing America,” and focusing its energies on self-preservation.
..“Many evangelicals were experiencing the sense of an almost existential threat,” Russell Moore, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me.
It was only a matter of time, he said, before cultural elites’ scornful attitudes would help drive Christians into the arms of a strongman like Trump. “I think there needs to be a deep reflection on the left about how they helped make this happen.”
.. Coming into the game, Trump had formed an opinion of the Indiana governor as prudish, stiff, and embarrassingly poor, according to one longtime associate.
.. Pence asked what his job description would be if they wound up in the White House together. Trump gave him the same answer he’d been dangling in front of other prospective running mates for weeks: He wanted “the most consequential vice president ever.” Pence was sold.
.. “I knew they would enjoy each other’s company,” Conway told me, adding, “Mike Pence is someone whose faith allows him to subvert his ego to the greater good.”
.. Pence spent much of their time on the course kissing Trump’s ring. You’re going to be the next president of the United States, he said. It would be the honor of a lifetime to serve you.
Afterward, he made a point of gushing to the press about Trump’s golf game. “He beat me like a drum,” Pence confessed, to Trump’s delight.
.. Trump released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees with unimpeachably pro-life records and assembled an evangelical advisory board composed of high-profile faith leaders.
.. One of the men asked to join the board was Richard Land, of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. When the campaign approached him with the offer, Land says, he was perplexed. “You do know that Trump was my last choice, right?” he said. But he ultimately accepted, and when a campaign aide asked what his first piece of advice was, he didn’t hesitate: “Pick Mike Pence.”
.. Then, on July 12, a miracle: During a short campaign swing through Indiana, Trump got word that his plane had broken down on the runway, and that he would need to spend the night in Indianapolis. With nowhere else to go, Trump accepted an invitation to dine with the Pences.
.. In fact, according to two former Trump aides, there was no problem with the plane. Paul Manafort, who was then serving as the campaign’s chairman, had made up the story to keep the candidate in town an extra day and allow him to be wooed by Pence.
.. Pence spoke of Trump in a tone that bordered on worshipful. One of his rhetorical tics was to praise the breadth of his running mate’s shoulders. Trump was, Pence proclaimed, a “broad-shouldered leader,” in possession of “broad shoulders and a big heart,” who had “the kind of broad shoulders” that enabled him to endure criticism while he worked to return “broad-shouldered American strength to the world stage.”
.. Campaign operatives discovered that anytime Trump did something outrageous or embarrassing, they could count on Pence to clean it up. “He was our top surrogate by far,”
.. “He was this mild-mannered, uber-Christian guy with a Midwestern accent telling voters, ‘Trump is a good man; I know what’s in his heart.’ It was very convincing—you wanted to trust him.
.. Even some of Trump’s most devoted loyalists marveled at what Pence was willing to say. There was no talking point too preposterous, no fixed reality too plain to deny
.. When, during the vice-presidential debate, in early October, he was confronted with a barrage of damning quotes and questionable positions held by his running mate, Pence responded with unnerving message discipline, dismissing documented facts as “nonsense” and smears.
.. It was the kind of performance—a blur of half-truths and “whatabout”s and lies—that could make a good Christian queasy.
.. Marc Short, a longtime adviser to Pence and a fellow Christian, told me that the vice president believes strongly in a scriptural concept evangelicals call “servant leadership.” The idea is rooted in the Gospels, where Jesus models humility by washing his disciples’ feet and teaches, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”
.. when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination, he believed he was committing to humbly submit to the will of Donald Trump. “Servant leadership is biblical,” Short told me. “That’s at the heart of it for Mike, and it comes across in his relationship with the president.”
.. “His faith teaches that you’re under authority at all times.
- Christ is under God’s authority,
- man is under Christ’s authority,
- children are under the parents’ authority,
- employees are under the employer’s authority.”
.. “Mike,” he added, “always knows who’s in charge.”
.. On friday, october 7, 2016, The Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape
.. Most alarming to the aides and operatives inside Trump Tower, Mike Pence suddenly seemed at risk of going rogue.
.. Republican donors and party leaders began buzzing about making Pence the nominee and drafting Condoleezza Rice as his running mate.
.. The furtive plotting, several sources told me, was not just an act of political opportunism for Pence. He was genuinely shocked by the Access Hollywood tape. In the short time they’d known each other, Trump had made an effort to convince Pence that—beneath all the made-for-TV bluster and bravado—he was a good-hearted man with faith in God. On the night of the vice-presidential debate, for example, Trump had left a voicemail letting Pence know that he’d just said a prayer for him. The couple was appalled by the video, however. Karen in particular was “disgusted,” says a former campaign aide. “She finds him reprehensible—just totally vile.”
.. Pence turns to a favorite passage in Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
.. “They thought they were going to be able to get him to drop out before the second debate,” said a former campaign aide. “Little did they know, he has no shame.”
.. Trump showed up in St. Louis for the debate with a group of Bill Clinton accusers in tow, ranting about how Hillary’s husband had done things to women that were far worse than his own “locker-room talk.”
.. In political circles, there had been a widespread, bipartisan recognition that Pence was a decent man with a genuine devotion to his faith. But after watching him in 2016, many told me, they believed Pence had sold out.
.. watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. “Ah, Mike,” he sighed. “Ambition got the best of him.” It’s an impression that even some of Pence’s oldest friends and allies privately share.
.. “The number of compromises he made to get this job, when you think about it, is pretty staggering.”
.. Pastor Ralph Drollinger, for example, caught Trump’s attention in December 2015, when he said in a radio interview, “America’s in such desperate straits—especially economically—that if we don’t have almost a benevolent dictator to turn things around, I just don’t think it’s gonna happen through our governance system.” Now Drollinger runs a weekly Bible study in the West Wing.
.. On one side, there are those who argue that good Christians are obligated to support any leader, no matter how personally wicked he may be, who stands up for religious freedom and fights sinful practices such as abortion. Richard Land told me that those who withhold their support from Trump because they’re uncomfortable with his moral failings will “become morally accountable for letting the greater evil prevail.”
.. On the other side of the debate is a smaller group that believes the Christians allying themselves with Trump are putting the entire evangelical movement at risk. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, has made this case forcefully.
.. only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”
.. One pastor compared Pence to Mordechai, who ascended to the right hand of a Persian king known for throwing lavish parties and discarding his wife after she refused to appear naked in front of his friends.
.. Pastor Mark Burns—a South Carolina televangelist who was among the first to sign on as a faith adviser to Trump—told me Pence’s role in the administration is like that of Jesus, who once miraculously calmed a storm that was threatening to sink the boat
.. Of the 15 Cabinet secretaries Trump picked at the start of his presidency, eight were evangelicals. It was, gushed Ted Cruz, “the most conservative Cabinet in decades.”
.. Pence understood the price of his influence. To keep Trump’s ear required frequent public performances of loyalty and submission—and Pence made certain his inner circle knew that enduring such indignities was part of the job.
.. “Look, I’m in a difficult position here,” Pence said, according to someone familiar with the meeting. “I’m going to have to 100 percent defend everything the president says. Is that something you’re going to be able to do if you’re on my staff?”
.. Trump does not always reciprocate this respect. Around the White House, he has been known to make fun of Pence for his religiosity.
.. During a conversation with a legal scholar about gay rights, Trump gestured toward his vice president and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”
.. “They have moved to an ends-justifies-the means style of politics that would have been unimaginable before this last campaign.”
.. he thought it was so low class,” says the adviser. “He thinks the Pences are yokels.”
.. Social conservatives had been lobbying the president to issue a sweeping executive order aimed at carving out protections for religious organizations and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and transgender rights. The proposed order was fairly radical, but proponents argued that it would strike a crucial blow against the militant secularists trying to drive the faithful out of the public square.
.. “Bannon wanted to fight for it,” says the Trump associate, “and he was really unimpressed that Pence wouldn’t do anything.”
.. But perhaps Pence was playing the long game—weighing the risks of taking on Trump’s kids, and deciding to stand down in the interest of preserving his relationship with the president.
.. What would a Pence presidency look like? To a conservative evangelical, it could mean a glorious return to the Christian values upon which America was founded. To a secular liberal, it might look more like a descent into the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale.
.. What critics should worry about is not that Pence believes in God, but that he seems so certain God believes in him. What happens when manifest destiny replaces humility, and the line between faith and hubris blurs? What unseemly compromises get made? What means become tolerable in pursuit of an end?
.. Trump’s order merely made it easier for pastors to voice political opinions from the pulpit—a conspicuously self-serving take on religious freedom.
.. The faith leaders pulled out their smartphones and snapped selfies, intoxicated by the VIP treatment. “Mr. President,” Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, said at one point, “we’re going to be your most loyal friends. We’re going to be your enthusiastic supporters. And we thank God every day that you’re the president of the United States.”
.. “I’ve been with [Trump] alone in the room when the decisions are made. He and I have prayed together,” Pence said. “This is somebody who shares our views, shares our values, shares our beliefs.” Pence didn’t waste time touting his own credentials. With this crowd, he didn’t need to. Instead, as always, he lavished praise on the president.