Pence shilling at Liberty University

“ As bleak as Pence’s remarks at Liberty University may sound, his words could very well strike a chord with these Christians who feel isolated.”

That’s the concluding line of Catherine Kim’s report on Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement speech to the graduating class at Liberty University.  I think that “strike a chord” may be Ms. Kim’s attempt at humor or possibly at straight-faced journalism, but lines like that are often called “red meat.”  Picture throwing a steak into a kennel of hungry dogs and saying that the arrival of the steak “struck a chord” with the dogs.

pence 1You wouldn’t know it by reading the speech [1] but there is a serious policy issue embedded in the Vice President’s remarks.  It is religious liberty.  If you have liberty on the basis of your religious faith, what is it you are free to do?  Well, let’s see.  You are free to “follow the dictates of your conscience.”

Let me just illustrate where that leads.  In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed outside of his Mesa, Arizona, gas station by Frank Roque, who said he wanted “to kill a Muslim” because of the 9/11 attacks.  Mr. Sodhi was “a Muslim” because he was wearing a turban.  Mr. Sodhi is a Sikh.  No one thinks Mr. Roque should be allowed to do such things just because his conscience told him to.

The consciences of Jehovah’s Witness school children in the Minersville School District told them that the “salute to the flag” at school was actually idolatry and therefore forbidden by conscience. [2]  The Supreme Court said that “freedom of conscience” didn’t extend that far.

On the other hand, the Board of Regents of the State of New York composed a prayer to be recited by students as part of the opening exercises.  The Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale (1962) said they couldn’t do that.  That doesn’t mean, as conservatives are fond of saying that “prayer in schools is illegal. [3] It means that forcing students to pray is illegal.  A line I once heard and have cherished for years is that there will be prayer in schools so long as there are tests is schools.

This business of being guided simultaneously by one’s conscience, on the one hand, and pence 2by the laws of the state on the other is a dicey business.  The law says that motels are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race whom they will accommodate and whom they will not.  What happens if my conscience tells me that contact with black Americans is contaminating and sinful?  Gay couples?  Transgendered customers?  Jews?  What happens if your pharmacist’s conscience will not allow him to fill a prescription your doctor has written for your contraceptives?  Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University, here.

It is a dicey business as I said.  Everyone agrees that there are some actions you should be able to take on the basis of your conscience and others you should not be required to take on the basis of your conscience.  Everyone agrees that the laws of the land apply equally to those who disagree with them—I don’t personally believe in traffic lights—and those who agree.  Where is the line?

No line but a crusade

Vice President Pence is not looking for a line.  He is building a crusade.  He is “trying to strike a chord with these Christians who feel isolated.”  In doing so, he is also doing three things that bother me a great deal.

The first is that he is taking the name “Christian,” which is a very important name to me, and saying that it refers exclusively to that very small slice of Christians represented by Liberty University.  It is because of the strategy Pence is using, in line with his conservative forebears, that people look at me with disgust on learning that I use that name to refer to my own faith. [4]

The second is that he refers to all kinds of opposition to the kind of “Christianity” taught at Liberty University as “persecution.”  In saying that, he is not wholly wrong.  There are secular people to whom the language of religion sounds like an attack on them and they reply in kind.  There are people who get tired of being lectured at by religious conservatives and reply in kind.  Those things do happen and I can see why Pence would want to call them “persecution.”[5]

On the other hand, some very aggressive political actions are being taken by people who call themselves Christians and the people who oppose those actions sometimes have good public policy reasons for their opposition.  These ought to be seen as policy struggles where these people want more and those people want less.  Situations like that used to result in compromise.  But if they are “persecution,” then not only are the conservatives morally right so matter what their stand, but all opposition to them is morally wrong.  It is “persecution.”  I don’t like that either.

Finally, Vice President Pence said this:

“Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian  It didn’t even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible.

As someone who takes expressions like “the teachings of the Bible” seriously, I don’t like that kind of language at all.  I have to assume that he means those teachings he approves of.  There are many others I am sure he would not approve of and he doesn’t mean those.  There are many such teachings, for instance, that will not help the students at Liberty University feel like a persecuted minority as they try to use their new political power to take rights away from other Americans.

I skipped the middle part of the speech where the Vice President loyally pitched President Trump’s invaluable contributions to the welfare of America.  They don’t bear directly on this essay, but they did suggest the title, “Pence Shilling at Liberty U.”

 [1]  Available at

[2] Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940), was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States involving the religious rights of public school students under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. … This decision led to increased persecution of Witnesses in the United States.

[3]  Or sometimes that they are “throwing God out of the schools.”

[4]  I let go of the historical symbol of the fish representing Christianity since the 1st Century A. D. when it came to represent not Christianity, but only “creationism.”  Having it on my car’s bumper said something about me that I did not want to say and adding a footnote to a bumper sticker—even for me—didn’t help.

[5]The Washington Post said, about this speech that “it furthers the evangelical persecution complex.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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