What did God say? Mike Pence prayed and then changed his mind on needle exchanges

What we have here is a rather complex, not-so-shallow, for the most part fair-minded New York Times news feature about (wait for it) a crucial political event in the life of Gov. Mike Pence, the evangelical Protestant running mate of Citizen Donald Trump.

Yes, faithful GetReligion readers, there are times when this story actually allows people close to Pence to talk about issues linked to religious faith and you cannot hear a snarky newsroom Greek chorus in the background. I know that you are all asking the same question: How did this miracle happen?

Actually, it's not a miracle at all because this story fits some rather familiar patterns that can be seen in work at the Gray Lady, as well as in other prestige newsrooms from time to time. What are these patterns?

(1) The story is about a complex and controversial moral and cultural issue -- in this case needle-exchange programs to stop the spread of H.I.V. among drug users -- but it is not an issue linked to the Sexual Revolution.

(2) Savvy evangelicals (Catholics, Mormons, etc.) who work in the public square know that all they have to do to improve their press coverage is to take actions that some would see as progressive and/or offensive to their core constituents in evangelical pews and pulpits.

(3) The politico in question, as part of his or her decision making process, goes to God in prayer and, lo and behold, in this case the voice of God is said to agree with the editorial-page policies of the New York Times.

So take a quick read through the feature that ran under this headline: "Mike Pence’s Response to H.I.V. Outbreak: Prayer, Then a Change of Heart." Do you see what I see?

The religious themes emerge right away, as Sheriff Dan McClain received a surprise telephone call. Pence told him that he wanted input -- real advice, not political stuff -- on drug crisis in Scott County.

Local, state and federal health officials were urging the governor to allow clean needles to be distributed to slow the outbreak. But Indiana law made it illegal to possess a syringe without a prescription. And Mr. Pence, a steadfast conservative, was morally opposed to needle exchanges on the grounds that they supported drug abuse.
As Sheriff McClain called the governor back, the pressure was mounting. The number of new H.I.V. cases in the county was nearing 90. .. Sheriff McClain, who was not a fan of needle exchanges, was quick to reply: “I believe the only thing we can do to stop or slow this thing is to get clean needles out there.”

And that leads to this:

As the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Mr. Pence brings a long record of social and fiscal conservatism that serves as a counterweight to Donald J. Trump’s frequently shifting views. But rarely have the governor’s principles been tested like they were during Indiana’s worst public health crisis in years.
Much as Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, had to wrestle with his deeply felt opposition to capital punishment in a death penalty state, allowing 11 executions when he was Virginia’s governor, the H.I.V. outbreak forced Mr. Pence to balance strong beliefs against ground-level reality: an epidemic that was growing more dire by the day.
In recent interviews, local, state and federal health officials said Mr. Pence initially held firm. So as they struggled to contain the spread of H.I.V., the officials embarked on a behind-the-scenes effort over several weeks to persuade him to change his mind, using political pressure, research and pleas for help from this remote, poor community.
On March 23, more than two months after the outbreak was detected, Mr. Pence said he was going to go home and pray on it. He spoke to the sheriff the next night. Two days later, he issued an executive order allowing syringes to be distributed in Scott County.

That's solid material, especially the link to Kaine's struggles between his progressive Catholic faith and political life. Some scribes would have mentioned his struggles on abortion and gay marriage, as well.

But back to Pence. It's also clear that the team behind this story wasn't very familiar with the diversity of views found among traditional believers on this kind of topic. For starters, why were needle-exchange programs automatically seen as something that would be rejected by doctrinal conservatives, if the issue was being debated on conservative moral grounds?

Yes, conservative religious believers frown on the abuse of drugs. But many would also say -- looking at this through pro-life lens -- that the first duty is to save lives. Then you can wrestle with the root causes of drug addiction, working with people who are, well, NOT DEAD.

Also, if the primary debate here is framed as conservative Christians being opposed to drug use, no matter that, is it logical to assume that religious liberals and conservatives are pro-drug use?

No way. No, that this story really boils down to is the hesitancy of many religious conservatives to trust the research and wisdom of secular social scientists, academics and public medical professionals -- folks who rarely are their allies in other tricky public-square debates. In this case, people close to Pence did the math and, after some delays, voted to save lives.

The religion questions surface at several points in the story. It's clear that debates were going on. What we never learn is the substance of the religious debates, as opposed to the political logic behind the 1988 ban on federal money being used to fund needle-exchange programs. Pence had consistently backed that ban.

Again, what changed? Readers are told:

... Dr. Jerome Adams, Mr. Pence’s health commissioner, said the governor needed certainty that he was doing the right thing.
“The governor wanted to make sure if we went this route it was absolutely necessary,” Dr. Adams said. “I believe he was praying on it up until the final decision.”

And then:

Even when the H.I.V. outbreak hit, it was hard for Mr. Pence and other Indiana officials to consider lifting the prohibition.
“There are people who have real moral and ethical concerns about passing out needles to people with substance abuse problems,” Dr. Adams said. “To be honest, I shared that sentiment.”
Brittany Combs, the public health nurse in Scott County, had the same initial reaction. “Even I, as a public health person, was like, ‘Aren’t we just enabling people?’ ”

OK, here is my question and it's a question that I know was hard to answer, since Pence -- the man is in the Trump machine after all -- declined to be interviewed on this sensitive issue by (cue: drum roll) the New York Times. My question is sincere and here it is: What did God say that changed Pence's mind?

Now if Pence isn't talking, and God doesn't speak directly to the Times, to whom are the reporters and editors supposed to turn for an interview?

Well, does Pence have a pastor? How about ethics professors and theologians at evangelical seminaries and medical think tanks? The point is, readers are never really told the content of the religious debates that supposedly shaped this fascinating decision by Pence.

This is a solid story in so many ways, but it pivots on Pence's statement that he changed his mind for religious reasons, after intense prayer. So, what happened? What Bible verses came to mind? To whom did he turn for theological advice in this case?

When the governor got down in his knees, what might he have heard?


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