A Whitewashed Tomb

On 28 Oct, Mike Pence dropped out of the Republican presidential race. Donald Trump’s former VP had been trailing from the start. He’d waffled for months on whether to launch a campaign, eventually announcing his bid last of the major candidates. He’d squeezed into the first GOP debate by a hair, qualifying the latest of any candidate on stage except for the nonentity Asa Hutchinson. His campaign lacked funding, racking up $620,000 in debt by the time he packed up shop. 

Pence’s modern-day lack of political weight begs the question: who cares? Why is his latest failure significant? The answer lies hidden in the pit where so many American evangelicals have fallen in the era of Trump.

The role that White Protestant evangelism has played in American politics had its beginning in the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan, who affixed religious priorities to his platform and won by a landslide. The triumph of Reagan was the inciting incident in the narrative of Republican evangelicals. It was hugely eventful in the life of Pence, who grew up Catholic but underwent his transformation to Protestant evangelicalism in the 1980s. Pence’s personal hero is Reagan, who he recently invoked in a September Wall Street Journal editorial entitled, after Reagan’s legendary 1964 speech, “A Republican Time for Choosing.” 

In the modern day, Pence is the most prominent poster boy for the cadre of Reaganite evangelicals that carried so much political force in a former era. His political rhetoric, past and present, is thick with affirmations of conservative religious principles. As governor of Indiana, he came under fire for putting forth legislation theoretically allowing those of religious convictions to refuse services to gay people. When Pence was presented with requests for the government to supply clean needles during an AIDS outbreak in 2015, he dismissed them with the statement “I’m going to go home and pray on it.” (Pence was forced to concede both issues in the face of public outcry.) 

As a representative of this particular sect of Republicanism, Pence and the failure of his campaign thus offer a revealing look at the state of conservatism and evangelicalism in America. His slavish devotion to Trump, a man ridiculously far removed from the values Pence claims to honour, is symbolic of a mould of compromised identity that has spread fast throughout religious conservatism in the country. The end of Pence’s campaign is a belated example of the effect of the Trumpian poison that has already achieved its end in a faction bereft of its former “principles.”

It began with insecurity. Christians in America dropped from 90% of the population in 1972 to 63% by the end of the 2010s. This seeming assault on the identity of the country made for a desperate situation in the ranks of the religious, especially those wedded to the Republican base—how would the policy goals of the religious right gain electoral momentum in a less Christian electorate? Out of this anxiety was born a willingness to accept populist leadership less aligned with traditional principles. Donald Trump’s 2016 momentum slowly enticed Republican leaders to give him their support. Trump had struggled with evangelicals, though, as was apparent in his failure to win the Iowa caucuses in 2016, a contest dominated by White evangelical Protestant voters. 

Republicans needed a figure that would bring the evangelicals behind Trump, a figure that would mitigate worry as to Trump’s lack of morals or Christian roots. “If I’m being called to serve, I will serve,” Pence told advisors in 2016, and whether or not the appointment was divine, he answered it. Trump now had a mask to wear for those members of the religious right not yet sold on his assumption of conservative power. “Trump’s got the populist nationalists,” adviser Steve Bannon once explained. “But Pence is the base. Without Pence, you don’t win.” And win they did. Trump carried 81% of the evangelical vote in 2016.

Trump continued to use religious conservatives to gain support throughout his presidency, but more than ever, evangelical Republicans came to rely on him for validity among a changing populace. He was fully embraced by Franklin Graham, the son of the legendary evangelical pastor, who said in 2018 “I believe he’s president of the United States for a reason. I think God put him there.” 

Pence was at the centre of these adoption efforts. At the anti-abortion March for Life in 2017, he proclaimed, “I can tell you firsthand: our President is a man with broad shoulders and a big heart.” Richard Land, the Southern Evangelical Seminary president, asserted in 2019 that “[Trump] is a different person than he was three years ago. He’s just a more spiritually sensitive person. I attribute that to some degree to Mike Pence.” Endorsement of Trump often came through the religious validity presented by his Vice President.

As the Trump years passed, authority continued to shift. By 2020, Pence was completely beholden to Trump. He supported Trump’s desire to invoke the Insurrection Act so that BLM protestors could be cleared for a photo op as well as penning an editorial for the Wall Street Journal in June of 2020 backing up Trump’s claim that the president had put a halt to COVID spikes and a summer wave was not incoming. 

Beyond prominent figures, Trump had succeeded in remaking White Protestant evangelicals in his image. He’d made conversions: of non-evangelical Trump supporters surveyed in 2016, 16% began identifying as evangelical by 2020 as compared to a 1% change for non-evangelical never-Trumpers. He’d captured the fringes, too: non-church attending evangelicals who identified as Republicans grew from 33% to 50% between 2008 and 2019. Perhaps most importantly, Trump’s proportion of the White evangelical Protestant vote rose from 77% in 2016 to 84% in 2020. Trump had won the evangelical populace. It was time to get rid of their leaders.

The Capitol attack of Jan. 6, 2021 represented more for Trump than just an attempt to challenge democracy. It was an effort to throw off the reins of evangelical leadership that had accompanied him thus far. By making Mike Pence the target of his supporters’ murderous rage, he dealt the death blow to traditional Republicanism as symbolised in his former Vice President. 

The shockwaves of this rupture reverberate in the present day. When Franklin Graham tentatively switched his 2024 endorsement from Trump to Pence, the event went unnoticed by the media. The traditional stances of the Pence campaign—abortion bans as far back as conception, aggressive military action in Ukraine, government absence in social affairs—contrast with Trump, who calls for isolationism and engages in culture wars. At the time of Pence’s dropout from the race, he was polling a whopping 3% in evangelical Iowa, as compared to Trump’s massive lead of 49%. 

Pence’s campaign was a relic of the past, his arguments falling deaf on the evangelical ears that used to lift up men like him. Trump has gained the full support of the people that Pence represented in a bygone era—the former Vice President’s betrayal of his causes has now gained him nothing more than a quick defeat. 

It would be easy to depict the fall of Pence Republicanism as a tragic story of the demise of the righteous. But Pence and the evangelicals were hardly a faction of virtue before Trump. Strom Thurmond, the fiery Baptist Democrat whose racist opposition to the civil rights movement drove him to jump ship to the Republicans under Nixon, was supported by evangelicals and President Reagan alike throughout the course of his political career. Jerry Falwell, Jr., who continued the activism of his Reaganite, televangelist father (and lent prominent support to Trump), was brought down in a perverted affair widely covered by the press. 

These examples are standouts in a long tradition of hypocrisy exemplified to the fullest by the evangelicals’ easy capitulation to Trump. It is no surprise that Pence’s campaign was the first major one to go, for it is a thing wholly of the past, a tomb of Reagan Republicanism filled with the bones Trump has finished with. In the Reagan era, Republican politicians had to court the support of the evangelical right by changes to their platform. Modern evangelicals, Pence chief among them, have compromised their self-professed values to gain the authority of Trump. Their house is thus left to them desolate.

Image Credit: Mike Pence by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY 3.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: Mike Pence addressing a crowd at a podium, in front of two American flags.