The New Yorker profiles Pence, but only gets half the man (and guess what is missing)


Certainly I was interested in reading about the unlikely match between the "coarse New York billionaire and the prim Indiana evangelical" that is now running our country, which is why I quickly reached for the New Yorker's piece on Vice President Mike Pence.

With a headline of "The Danger of President Pence," I knew where the article was going, but I hoped there might be solid, factual, even fair-minded gleanings about Pence's faith and how his God connection guides what he does. 

The bottom line: I found little there that other writers hadn't already covered. The feature began like this:

On September 14th, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who last year published a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” expressed what a growing number of Americans, including conservatives, have been feeling since the 2016 election. The previous day, President Trump had dined with Democratic leaders at the White House, and had impetuously agreed to a major policy reversal, granting provisional residency to undocumented immigrants who came to America as children. Republican legislators were blindsided. Within hours, Trump disavowed the deal, then reaffirmed it. Coulter tweeted, “At this point, who doesn’t want Trump impeached?” She soon added, “If we’re not getting a wall, I’d prefer President Pence.”

The piece goes on to describe how little attention has been paid to Pence (who refused to be interviewed for the piece) until now, when people are longing for anyone, anything to replace Trump. And that Pence, with his political experience, conservative moorings and connections, may be as dangerous as his boss or even more so (you know, all that religion stuff).

The New Yorker then went on a long digression about Pence’s connections with billionaires Charles and David Koch. (Not surprisingly, the reporter, Jane Mayer, did not mete out the same criticism to multi-billionaire George Soros and his contributions to Democrats but then again, this part of the piece is recycled from her recent book “Dark Money” about conservative fat cats ).

Any fresh religious content is surprisingly skimpy, when you consider that this is a profile on a very devout man. Starting in his college days:

On a visit home, he told his father that he was thinking of either joining the priesthood or attending law school. His father suggested he start with law; he could always join the priesthood later. Shortly thereafter, to his family’s surprise, Pence became an evangelical Christian. His mother said that “college gave him a different viewpoint.” The story Pence tells is that he was in a fraternity, and when he admired another member’s gold cross he was told, “You have to wear it in your heart before you wear it around your neck.” Soon afterward, Pence has said, he attended a Christian music festival in Kentucky and “gave my life to Jesus.”

It then identified Pence with the Moral Majority, although the link was pretty tenuous in that Pence belonged to a House Republican caucus linked to the group. It then repeated the well-known story of how he courted his wife and how she carried a gold cross in her purse with the word “yes” on it. There was only one paragraph of Pence’s stance on not being alone with women other than his wife; again a surprising lack considering how other outlets poured buckets of ink into covering that.

Mentions of religion are piecemeal. There is this:

Pence’s campaign foundered after the press revealed that he had used donations toward personal expenses, such as his mortgage and groceries. It wasn’t technically illegal, but it violated the trust of his supporters and sullied his pious image. 

There’s also a mention about how he prayed with colleagues at a law firm where he worked; it quoted one of his critics as saying “Beneath the Bible-thumping earnestness was a calculating and ambitious pol; ” then quoted one of Pence’s supporters as saying:

He’d also never seen “anyone who is as dedicated a public servant, and lives their faith as Mike does.” Short, who is a devout Christian, said, “People often profess faith that’s not lived out, but with him it’s lived out each and every day. It guides him. It’s his core.”

Then the article, annoyingly, veered back toward the Kochs. (Earth to New Yorker: Didn't any editor notice this weird emphasis?)  

To its credit, the piece was even-handed on Pence’s bungling of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act imbroglio in the governor’s home state in that it quoted angry conservatives as well as furious liberals. But it never went into the "why" of how Pence got behind the act in the first place. How did his beliefs affect its passage? And why, in the end, did he cave?

The piece –- like I said, it is long -– goes on to report on how Pence acted most un-christianly in several instances: In his refusal to pardon an innocent black prison convict; in his opposition to the local Catholic bishop who wanted to settle a Syrian family in Indiana (the family ended up elsewhere); and his refusal to help people with HIV. The reoccurring theme is that Pence is a fake Christian at best and someone who will sell out the principles of his faith, if necessary, to rise politically.

“It was all about Pence’s political career,” Cooper said. “As a Christian, he’s a hypocrite. He wouldn’t see me or speak with me. God doesn’t turn his back on the truth, but Pence just walked away from the truth…He talks all this God stuff, but he’s biased. He hates Muslims, he hates gay people, and he hates minorities.”

Pence was not at all certain to be re-elected as governor of Indiana, which meant throwing his hat in Trump’s ring was a huge financial and personal risk. When the Access Hollywood tapes were published:

Pence refused to take Trump’s calls and sent him a letter saying that he and Karen, as Christians, were deeply offended by his actions and needed to make an “assessment” about whether to remain with the campaign. They urged Trump to pray. When Trump and Pence finally did talk, Pence told him that his wife still had “huge problems” with his behavior.

The author then swings back to reporting on the Kochs. Her obsession with those folks nearly derails the piece and made it less the article it could have been.

There's no mention of Pence's appearances on behalf of religious freedom nor of his frequent meetings with the many evangelicals who visit the White House these days. Since Trump's narrow win over Hillary Clinton in electoral votes was largely due to his huge showing (81%) among evangelicals, is it fair to suggest that Pence might have helped swing the election for Trump? The reporter could have asked if, despite all his faults, Pence was the one who brought in that vital demographic.

There's also no mention of where Pence currently attends church. It took Anglican scribe David Virtue's VirtueOnline site to note that Pence has dropped by the Falls Church Anglican in northern Virginia three times for services. 

Of course, this feature also includes the much-discussed, in mainstream coverage, quotes in which Trump is said to have belittled or even attacked Pence's faith and conservative-Christian style. This is crucial, since it hints (trigger warning) that Pence is the really dangerous moral conservative, while Trump is a pretender.

At the end, the article swings back towards Pence’s faith, only to find it wanting. The semi-curse word "fundamentalism" is, of course, used here.

There have been other evangelical Christians in the White House, including Carter and George W. Bush, but Pence’s fundamentalism exceeds theirs. In 2002, he declared that “educators around America must teach evolution not as fact but as theory,” alongside such theories as intelligent design, which argues that life on Earth is too complex to have emerged through random mutation. Pence has described intelligent design as the only “remotely rational explanation for the known universe.” 

For those of us who’ve covered religion, those thoughts are quite centrist in the faith world. If she knew anything about the evangelical Protestant world, she’d get that. Also, she would know that fundamentalists have consistently attacked intelligent design believers, who accept many elements of evolution.

One wonders if Mayer and reporters like her want to get it. If all she could see of Pence's Christianity was hypocrisy. she only profiled half the man, only half of his struggle to live out his beliefs in public life.

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