Mike Pence’s religion

Time for my second supplemental post on Mike Pence. You can read the original Indianapolis Monthly profile here, and near the end of it I describe asking Pence for some specifics about his personal faith. It’s a fair and vital question for two reasons: because Pence comes with a fascinating (and slightly messy) religious past; and because that past continues to shape every choice he makes. Yet all Pence would say to me is “I’m a pretty ordinary Christian.” He even ducked my question about where he goes to church, and I think it’s worth comparing that vagueness to some of his older answers about his faith. Indeed, as Pence has become more prominent, he’s also become more committed to saying absolutely nothing of interest — even on a topic about which he’d presumably want to share.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1994, the Indianapolis Business Journal published a terrific profile of the 35-year-old Pence. There, he described his faith quite openly: “I made a commitment to Christ. I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” You don’t see that combo every day, even in Indiana, but the Journal had caught Pence at a time when he was oscillating between his upbringing and his evangelical faith. Pence’s parents raised their children Catholic, and Pence served as an altar boy and went to a parochial school. In college, however, he fell in with a nondenominational student fellowship group — he wouldn’t tell me which one — and made his “commitment to Christ.” That didn’t end his commitment to Catholicism, and when Pence graduated in 1981 he worked as a full-time Catholic youth minister and even applied to D.C.’s Catholic University. The plan was to become a priest, he told the Journal, and while it didn’t work out Pence was still attending mass in the late ’80s, when met his wife at Indy’s St. Thomas Aquinas.

At some point in the mid ’90s, Pence and his young family switched to an evangelical mega church. (In 1995, he told the Indianapolis Star that they attended the city’s Grace Evangelical Church.) Whatever the route, though, the destination is pretty clear: Pence’s evangelical faith has informed every aspect of his political career. Here are a few of many, many examples, drawn from his early years in Congress:

  • During the 2000 election, the Star described Pence’s debate with Democrat Bob Rock: “Pence, who said he attends an evangelical Christian church, asked Rock, a Catholic, if he would support Richard Gephardt as speaker of the House if the Democrats gain control, even though Gephardt supports abortion rights. ‘I would never support him on the issue of abortion,’ said Rock. ‘I am as pro-life as you are and that is not an issue in this campaign.'”
  • In 2001, the newly-elected Pence talked to The Hill about his marriage: “He never dines alone with a woman who is not his wife. And when his wife is absent, he never attends events where alcohol flows. ‘If there’s alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me,’ Pence said. As it happens, Pence frequently turns down invitations for drinks or dinner from male colleagues. ‘It’s about building a zone around your marriage,’ he observed.”
  • In 2002, Pence talked to Congressional Quarterly about Israel: “‘My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,’ Pence said in an interview March 18. ‘In the Bible, God promises Abraham, “Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.” So, in some way, I don’t fully understand [U.S. policy]. I believe our own national security is tied to our willingness to stand with the people of Israel.'”
  • In 2003, Pence talked to Human Events about whether or not he could block Medicare Part D: “I don’t know, but God has surprised me a few times since I got here, and I hope He’ll surprise me again.”

Today, there’s no question that Pence’s religion continues to shape Pence’s politics. Andrew Phipps, a Hoosier politico who also hosts gospel TV and radio shows, put it to me this way: “I don’t think Mike will ever forsake his core values — the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and our great heritage of faith, family, and freedom.”

What has changed is Pence’s willingness to discuss just what makes up that religion. This has always struck me as somewhat shady — in a case like Pence’s, it’s essentially a politician who refuses to disclose his politics. Then again, the pattern now applies to almost every subject with Pence. He used to be a frank and fascinating interview. In 1994, he described his pre-Reagan politics like this: “[Carter] was a good Christian. Beyond that, there was a sense of, ‘Why would you elect a movie star?'” In 1995, he openly criticized Rush Limbaugh: “Conservative media, including Rush, have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to making a distinction between differences in public policy and personal differences.”

Someone might be able to get Pence to say things this detailed and interesting today, but I sure couldn’t. Instead, I got a guy — a guy who will likely run for president in 2016 or 2020 —  who did this:

Then something strange happened. Mike Pence, the guy who, the night before, had seemed to shake every single hand in Lucas Oil Stadium, the guy whose aides budget extra time in his schedule because he’s such a talker (“He’s Irish,” one of them explained)—Mike Pence, exactly 20 minutes into a 45-minute interview, said, “We gotta roll in about five, don’t we?”

Mike Pence’s “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner”

On Friday, I linked to my long Indianpolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence. Today, I’ll post the first of four supplemental blog posts on Indiana’s new governor.

While Pence served in Congress from 2000 to 2012, he took his first two shots at national office in 1988 and 1990. In my profile, I note how nasty those campaigns became, and we could spend hours piling up examples. “Mike Pence’s gutter brand of politics has sunk to a new low,” read one editorial in the Shelbyville News, “and for the Pence campaign, that’s saying something.”

In the aftermath of those races, Pence’s reputation bottomed out. But in the summer of 1991 he published a short essay called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.” The essay, which has not been available online (and which I’m posting in full, after the jump), offered a savvy first step in the rehabilitation of his political career. After all, most journalists today cite it, then glide right past the campaigns’ actual events. (Check out the “Confessions” Google trail here.)

That doesn’t mean those journalists have read the essay. “I haven’t read it,” one source told me, right before he expounded on its text, “but I’ve heard the general gist.” Given the way “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” is frequently described, I’d guess this is true of most Hoosier journalists and political insiders. Because what you’ll notice, if you do read it, is that it’s not much of a confession. Pence sounds like he’s still smarting a bit from ’88 and ’90. He shows remorse, but not about his slimy tactics — instead, it’s about the missed opportunity to argue for his political beliefs.

Now there’s certainly something laudable about this second point, and from ’91 up to his recent run for governor Pence rarely wasted any similar opportunities. During that time, however, he also began describing his early regrets in a striking new way. “My faith says if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “My response, after being attacked by my opponent, was to empty the silos on this guy.” I talked to multiple people close to Pence who dispute his chronology — that the opponent started it — but the key point here is that Pence started framing his political conversion in terms of forgiveness and sadness. That’s not what you’ll find in the 1991 essay, which you can see by clicking on “continue reading.” But it is a perfect example of how Pence will simplify and even rewrite his life narrative — something we’ll get into in my next supplemental post.

Continue reading “Mike Pence’s “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner””

A review of Matthew Tully’s Searching for Hope


In this week’s NUVO, an alt weekly in Indianapolis, I’ve got a review of Matthew Tully’s Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America. Tully’s a very good columnist at the Indianapolis Star, and while Searching for Hope isn’t great, it’s almost certainly the only book anyone will write about Indy’s inner-city schools for a long time.

The review isn’t online, so I’ll put the full text after the break. One more thing:when I write about Indiana, it’s normally to write about high school basketball. Well, the high school Tully covered just sent its team to regionals. This story didn’t get much attention, but it does line up with the few brief moments of hope in Tully’s book.

Continue reading “A review of Matthew Tully’s Searching for Hope

The closing of the Wigwam (and the state of Indiana basketball)

[New York Times]

In Sunday’s New York Times sports section, I’ve got a long feature on the closing of the Wigwam, the 8,996-seat arena in Anderson, Indiana, that ranks as the second largest high school gym in the world. Or ranked, rather: Anderson’s school board closed the Wigwam last summer, in a decision that frustrated many fans and seemed to strike another blow to the city’s struggling self-image. Those elements certainly belong in this story, but I also tried to focus on the positive — the way the Anderson Indians got a chance to create, in the words of their coach, Joe Nadaline, “a new tradition.” I also took Nadaline’s idea one step further. What could the Wigwam’s closing reveal about the current relationship between Indiana and high-school hoops? Short answer: while it’s taken a few steps back, it remains powerful and pretty much without compare.

That doesn’t mean we should lapse into lazy “Indiana basketball” rhapsodies. (For example.) But it does mean the state continues to offer a surprising level of passion, quality, and, given its smallish size, talent. One way to see this is in the person of John Harrell. I quote Harrell briefly in my story, and his delightfully lo-fi website offers an indispensable resource for any local fan.

Harrell started writing for the Huntington Herald-Press while he was a senior in high school. He migrated to the Bloomington Herald-Times‘ sports desk in the early 1970s. Around the same time, Jeff Sagarin, a sports stats guru who now helps with the BCS rankings, also moved to Bloomington. Harrell started delivering him hand-written lists of Indiana’s high school basketball scores; Sagarin started churning out professional-grade rankings for the state’s programs. (Another reason to be optimistic about Anderson going forward? They played one of the 20 toughest schedules in the state, according to Sagarin.)

“It all developed into this website eventually,” Harrell told me. “I had all these records laying around.” In 2000, Harrell started uploading those records (and the latest scores and schedules) to his personal website. It became crucial for coaches, ADs, journalists, and super-fans, with data that goes back to 1993. Harrell says he still has the earlier stuff — it’s just stuck on a computer that can no longer transfer files to more modern machines. He may get around to transferring it by hand now that he’s retired. “I haven’t been as busy,” he said. “I’ve had more time to devote to the site.”

Like any longtime observer of the Indiana hoops scene, Harrell brought up class basketball and attendance numbers before I could even ask the question. He admits the switch has hurt attendance, but also points out that fan interest has been slowly, steadily declining for decades. (I agree: when you crunch the numbers, you see that class basketball, more than anything else, provides an easy scapegoat for angry nostalgics. See this terrific Indianapolis Monthly story for more.) One thing’s for sure, according to Harrell: class basketball is here to stay. “The small schools have gotten a taste for Indianapolis now,” he said with a laugh.

Josh McRoberts, by way of The Jefferson Bible

[Los Angeles Times]

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I’ve got an op ed on the Jefferson Bible — back in the news, thanks to a new edition from the Smithsonian, and more relevant than ever, thanks to the Republican presidential primary. I could say a lot more about the history of the Jefferson Bible, and somewhere down the line I will. For now, though, I’ll write about something else — another recent story in the Times, this near-crazy column about Lakers reserve Josh McRoberts.

The column comes from Bill Plaschke, a Fire Joe Morgan favorite who’s made a career out of getting things wrong. In fact, I single this instance out only because it reveals a lot about how the media continues to mythologize “Indiana basketball.”

Plaschke starts with a promising topic — how a prep and college star handles being a role player in the pros. There are some good details, too, like the fact that McRoberts moved to L.A. so quickly that he’s been taking an airport shuttle to games. Where the column goes off the rails, though, is when it addresses McRoberts’s Indiana roots. It doesn’t help that Plaschke relies on one of those lazy, column-by-number structures that FJM loved to hate. McRoberts is Josh McRambis, he’s Josh McFly, and, now, he’s “Josh McHoosier”:

He grew up swallowing wood chips that landed in his mouth from his splintered driveway backboard. His other childhood gym was a goal hammered to the side of his grandmother’s barn. He was the nation’s top-ranked player as a senior at an Indianapolis-area high school where, during the recent NBA lockout, he served as an assistant coach. And, oh yeah, he can’t stand to watch the movie Hoosiers anymore because, basically, he lived it. With his Indiana twang, he even sounds like it. “Where I came from, all I’ve been through, that’s made me who I am,” he says. “Hoosiers is about right.”

This is absolute nonsense. That “Indianapolis-area high school”? It’s Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana, easily the richest city in the richest county in the state. The 4,600-student high school boasts a national reputation for college prep. The city just built a fancy concert hall known as The Palladium. Carmel isn’t famous for its hardscrabble Hoosier-ness. It’s famous for its roundabouts.

Now there’s nothing wrong with this. But McRoberts talking about the goal on his grandmother’s barn — and let’s note that his dad played basketball at Butler and his mom teaches at a Carmel school — makes as much sense as me talking about the rusted-out combine on my grandfather’s farm. Does it exist? Yes. Does it mean I deserve a Walker Evans portrait? Hardly.

It’s interesting that McRoberts can no longer watch Hoosiers. I heard the same thing from several high schoolers in Milan, Indiana, when I did a story on the town’s basketball legacy. In both cases, it seems like the natural, reasonable reaction of people who’ve seen the same lazy story line projected on them way too many times. If it’s basketball and it’s Indiana, then it must be Hoosiers — underdogs, outhouses, twangy accents. Honestly, I don’t even blame McRoberts for mentioning his grandmother’s barn. I’d bet you a pile of wood chips Plaschke was gunning for details of just that sort.