In Defense of Pence: Commencement Controversies in an Outraged World

Vice President Mike Pence has been invited to deliver the 2019 commencement address for Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. However, a severe backlash against the former Indiana governor demands that his invitation be rescinded. The accusations against Pence are fallacious, slanderous, and contrary to both a biblical worldview and a liberal-arts education.

On April 11, Taylor University announced that Vice President Mike Pence would deliver the 2019 commencement address for the Christian liberal-arts school in Upland, Indiana. Taylor is well known for its academic excellence, top college ranking in the Midwest region, and its tight-knit community governed by the Life Together Covenant. However, the selection of Pence as this year’s commencement speaker threatens to further divide a community that is already under stress. The reaction against Pence’s invitation was immediate and fierce: a Change.org petition has circulated calling on the school’s administration to rescind the invitation, and so far has garnered over 7,000 signatures (a counter petition was also started, and currently has over 6,000 signatures).

Pence is not the only person to come under fire this commencement season: Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield’s invitation to deliver Concordia University’s commencement address was rescinded, and a speech by Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko at Middlebury College was canceled. Sadly, this kind of de-platforming has become a common phenomenon in our time.

While the objections to Pence are strident and carry a certain moral and missional directive, the question remains: is the outrage against the Vice President justified? In this essay, we respond to the most pertinent concerns and demonstrate that Mike Pence is a far more exceptional and fitting choice for Taylor than his critics claim. Additionally, we argue that the demands to rescind the commencement invitation are mistaken, toxic, and ultimately set a dangerous precedent for college campuses.

Are Commencement Speeches Political?

One of the most common complaints against Pence delivering Taylor’s commencement address is that it represents a political endorsement by Taylor’s leadership of the Trump administration and Republican politics. The anti-Pence petition states that Taylor’s invitation is equivalent to giving Pence a “coveted platform for his political views,” in which case, the school would be making a political statement, if not a political endorsement.

But why should we think this? Commencement addresses are not political platforms. A commencement invitation does not confer approval and legitimation on everything the invited speaker has ever said or done, or every organization, administration, policy, or social cause he or she has ever been involved with.

Pence has given a number of commencement addresses, but in none of them has he used his platform as an opportunity to preach partisan politics. Instead, for example, at the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 graduation, Pence took the opportunity to congratulate the graduates, honor their parents and loved ones, and encourage them to continue in virtue and excellence. Only twice did he mention President Trump: once to say it was the greatest honor of his life to serve as Vice President, and then briefly to commend policies Trump had promoted that upheld religious liberty and opposed religious persecution. These comments were hardly partisan or divisive, and they were entirely appropriate at a Catholic school of higher education.

Of course, a speaker like Pence does not relinquish his office or his role as the Vice President when he speaks at graduations. He comes as the Vice President of the United States in the Trump administration. But this does not make his invitation a political statement or endorsement by the university.

Guilt by Association

A second objection to Pence as a commencement speaker is the charge of complicity. Returning again to the petition, it claims that Pence’s “political views [make] our alumni, faculty, staff and current students complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration’s policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear.” There are two accusations of complicity in this (and similar) arguments: first, that Pence himself is complicit in everything President Trump has ever said, tweeted, or done, or that the Trump administration as a whole has done; and second, that by inviting Pence to speak at commencement, the entire Taylor community is complicit in all the actions of the Trump-Pence administration. Both of these arguments fail because they both fall prey to the fallacy of guilt by association.

Even if we assume that Donald Trump or certain parts of his administration are guilty of the virulent, harmful, and divisive politics of which people claim they are, this does not automatically implicate Pence. Pence is not responsible for Trump’s past or present lies, for Trump’s multiple divorces, infidelity, or alleged sexual harassment; Pence is not guilty of Trump’s materialism, crudeness, or many prideful boasts. General support or praise for the President does not mean that Pence supports everything Trump does, says, or believes, and it certainly does not mean that Pence supports the reckless manner in which Trump often tweets or talks.

Many have claimed that Pence’s “silence” in the face of unpopular policies (e.g., immigration) or inflammatory incidents (e.g., Charlottesville) demonstrates that Pence is failing to bear witness to the truth and stand for the vulnerable because he has not publicly called out or challenged President Trump. Yet with all arguments from silence, there is a dubious hidden premise: that if the Vice President were seeking to reform the Trump administration from within or oppose harmful policies and rhetoric, that he must do so openly and loudly so that we might all know.

This is not a valid assumption. From our outside perspective, we cannot say what Pence has or has not done to reform or correct the Trump administration. Given Pence’s personality and temperament, we would not be surprised if Pence sought out more private and less controversial ways to positively influence the president. In fact, sometimes the most effective approach is leading by personal example and excellence in the face of challenges and trials. Such a quiet style of leadership might not satiate our desire for outrage, drama, and public denunciation, but it just might be more effective. This is also a biblical approach (Rom. 12:7-8, 18; 1 Tim. 5:1).

Pence must be judged by what he has done or what he should have done but failed to do, not merely on the basis of his proximity to Trump or his association with the present administration. Likewise, by extending an invitation to Pence, Taylor is neither responsible for nor complicit in what President Trump or his administration have done so far.

Mike Pence’s Policies and Character

Readers who still object to Pence might respond by noting that their antagonism isn’t based only (or even primarily) on his association with the Trump presidency, but on who they believe Pence is as a person. He is blameworthy for what he has said and done. Thus, at the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni called Pence a “holy terror,” as well as a “self-infatuated . . . bigot . . . [and] liar,” who is “cruel.” In response to Joe Biden’s comments that Pence is a “decent guy,” Cynthia Nixon in The Washington Post retorted by calling Pence “insidious” and a man who has “built his career on homophobia and misogyny.” A Human Rights Campaign report on Pence entitled “The Real Mike Pence” blasted the Vice President as an extremist who is driven by ambition.

Those who accuse Pence in this way almost always cite public policy to condemn the Vice President. Accordingly, Pence is hateful towards the LGBTQ community, discriminates against them, and infringes on their civil rights because he believes that the deterioration of traditional marriage and family leads to societal collapse, and so opposes “marriage equality,” disagrees with various Employment Non-Discrimination Acts, signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act while governor of Indiana in 2015, opposed repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy, was against the May 2016 “Dear Colleague” directive from the Obama administration regarding transgender bathrooms in schools, and supposedly champions “conversion therapy” as a valid and valuable psychological tool for the same-sex attracted.

On other issues, Pence supposedly refused to intervene to stop an HIV outbreak while governor in 2015, he ignored a lead contamination crisis in Indiana, he opposes women’s reproductive health (because he wants to defund Planned Parenthood), he has attacked and undermined voting rights, he supports capital punishment, and he has claimed that “smoking doesn’t kill” (which was misunderstood). The list of accusations could go on. Pence’s stances on these issues are believed to be a clear indication of his noxious character and the destructive political power he now wields.

Yet on most of these policy issues, Pence’s positions have been reasonable and are defensible within the long arc of American political history, as well as over two millennia of Western civilization. In some cases, the accusations against him are false or gross distortions. In other instances, the divide reflects perennial debates over policy.

The Dangers of Secular Faith

On other issues, however, more than policy differences are involved. Does Pence really hate the LGBTQ community because he supports traditional marriage? Does he oppose women’s health because he wants to defund abortion providers like Planned Parenthood? While it would be easy to write off these attacks as identity politics and tribal ideology masquerading as moral outrage, a deeper explanation is more plausible and more profitable. The hysteria against Pence (and many others who hold similar views to his) is indicative of a totalizing revolution that could be summarized as “secularism” or a “secular faith.”

Secularism pretends to be natural and neutral, but as Mary Eberstadt has demonstrated in her book, It’s Dangerous to Believe, it is really a new religious and fundamentalist faith that dominates the political establishment, media, Hollywood, and higher education. It has its own deity (the Self), language, gospel, and teleology; it is strident and intolerant of those who don’t bow to it, but it advances by capturing the language of rights, freedom, and non-discrimination that is dear to the American identity and experience. Only within a revolutionary worldview like this would Pence’s beliefs and policies—many of which were widely accepted by the general public and our political class just a decade ago—be denounced as obscene, cruel, and a sign that he is a twisted man. Unlike this arrogant, novel faith, Pence humbly accepts and lives by clear biblical truth and a classical worldview that has sustained two thousand years of church history and Western civilization.

We understand why secularists like Bruni or Nixon would castigate Pence according to their brave, new worldview, but we are concerned that many Christians (including some in the Taylor community) have apparently bought into much of this worldview shift as well. We would encourage Christians to be more introspective and critically minded about the sources that inform their critiques.

The Virtues of Mike Pence

Vice President Pence’s public and personal records are not perfect. But his record is exceptional and overwhelmingly worth emulating. Below are a few examples of why Pence should not merely be tolerated but actually celebrated as someone who has modeled Christian love remarkably well.

Future Generations. According to one Pence biographer, “few issues concerned him like the longstanding policy of Congress to write budgets that spend more money than they take in: . . . programs that would burden his children’s generation with a mountain range of debt.” As Indiana’s governor, Pence championed and oversaw a balanced budget amendment and worked tirelessly to ensure fiscal responsibility. While serving at the national level he has consistently opposed unrealistic and overreaching government solutions.

Immigrants. Contrary to many over-simplified caricatures, Pence has demonstrated a deep and genuine care for immigrants and the immigration crisis throughout his career. For example, in his 2006 speech, “Border Security and Immigration,” Pence set forth his Border Integrity and Immigration Reform Act that attempted to find a middle ground between amnesty and deportation.

Political Opponents. Scripture commands us to “not repay evil with evil or insult with insult but on the contrary bless” (1 Pet. 3:9). Pence has done this with an admirable amount of consistency and distinction throughout his career, especially after pledging never again to run a campaign as negative as his 1990 Indiana campaign. It was well known during his governorship that Pence appeared with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and praised him for being “a dedicated public servant and a patriot.” Recently, though, Pence has been repeatedly ridiculed by Buttigieg, yet he has responded with a soft answer (Prov. 15:1). Pence has refused to return in kind these cheap shots, demonstrating that he is a tolerant and kind man who is willing to praise those across the political aisle.

The Preborn. Pence has consistently stood for the rights of precious preborn human beings—by far the most marginalized, forgotten, and underprivileged victim group in the United States today. One commentator observed that Pence has a “long pro-life legacy” that speaks to his Christian character and consistent stance on this issue. These together embody a generous ethic of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Personal Fidelity. Pence has been married to his wife, Karen, for over forty years, and his integrity in marriage gained him the name “pious Pence.” Last year Pence received both criticism and praise for his decision to safeguard his marriage by not being alone with other women beside his wife. Christians are exhorted not to let even a hint of sexual immorality be present in their lives (Eph. 5:3). While we may disagree about how precisely we should practice this exhortation, Pence’s decision is honorable. His friends can testify that sexual integrity and marital fidelity are virtues that Pence has pursued throughout his life.

Magnanimity and Open-mindedness. During his time as a television and radio host (1994–1999), Pence regularly allowed both sides to be presented on the air, which embodies the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17. Even those opposed to Pence willingly testify to his honor and reputation. Democrat John Gregg, whom Pence defeated in 2012, said that he would “serve as a character witness for the governor if necessary.” The author of the same article notes: “Political enemies and opponents alike say Pence is one of the nicest guys they know.”

John Jenkins, President of the University of Notre Dame, summed up our convictions about the Vice President when he stated, “Mike Pence has served our state and now the nation with quiet earnestness, moral conviction, and a dedication to the common good characteristic of true statesmen.” We believe that Pence’s character speaks for itself, and that he has been unduly tarnished and slandered in recent days.

Education and the Liberation of the Soul

The university serves a unique role in civic life as a place where different people can gather to discuss and debate diverse, and often conflicting or even troubling, ideas. If every person or idea that graced an academic campus had to be endorsed by the university as good, true, and beautiful, then the campus would either be chaotic or puritan. Neither is conducive for a liberal-arts education. As Robert P. George has explained, the purpose of a true liberal-arts education is to liberate the soul:

Personal authenticity, in the classical understanding of liberal-arts education, consists in self-mastery—in placing reason in control of desire. According to the classic liberal-arts idea, learning promises liberation, but it is not liberation from demanding moral ideals and social norms, or liberation to act on our desires—it is, rather, liberation from slavery to those desires, from slavery to self.

In the classical view, humans are finite and fallen: we suffer from ignorance, willful blindness, bias, sin, and bondage to passions that often dehumanize us. While education is not our ultimate salvation (only Jesus Christ is), it is a critical part of our personal development. It enables us to know ourselves and our transgressions, overcome ignorance and bias, and discipline the mind to bring about true freedom for the person. A necessary part of this process is listening with a critically engaged and open mind to ideas of every kind and people of all backgrounds.

Refusing to host a speaker on campus because part of the student body finds his or her ideas unpalatable or offensive defeats a liberal-arts education. This path leads students to close their minds to the world, to defend their beliefs as unfalsifiable, to confirmation bias, and to refuse to be challenged or stretched.

We call on the Taylor community, as Christian witnesses in a hostile and broken world, to model true tolerance, open-mindedness, and the best that a Christian liberal-arts education can offer by respecting and honoring Vice President Mike Pence as this year’s commencement speaker.

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