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 profile of Mike Pence, Indiana’s new governor

[Indianapolis Monthly]

In the January issue of Indianapolis Monthly, I’ve got a 5,000-word profile of Mike Pence. On January 14, Pence will be sworn in as Indiana’s new governor, and I talked to more than 30 of his friends, acquaintances, and former aides in an attempt to understand the guy.

The strange thing is, I still don’t think I do. I mean, I understand his belief system — “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” as he frequently puts it. And I understand his political past, which includes two early (and ugly) congressional campaigns and a legislative record, once he did make it to D.C., that’s as rigid and far-right as they come. But what I don’t understand is how Pence could set so much of that history aside during his run for governor. When I started my reporting, I admired Pence for possessing a consistent and coherent world-view — especially when one compares him to other Bush-era conservatives like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. By the time I finished, however, it felt like he had become more . . . malleable. Or, as I put it in the story: “During his run for governor, Pence marshaled his considerable political talent in a brand-new way — not to champion his beliefs, but to obscure them.”

One of the juicy tidbits in my profile is that, more than a year before the election, Pence made a calculated decision to smooth over his previous positions and methods. There’s other good stuff, as well, including some stuff we couldn’t fit in. Since Pence is such an important Hoosier (and since there’s a good chance [a very good chance, in my opinion] that he’ll run for president), I’m going to spend the next few days writing a series of supplemental blog posts. So check back for more on the following topics — and please read the profile itself.

  1. Pence’s famous “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” essay (with the full text)
  2. Pence’s personal faith (and how he’s become more secretive about it)
  3. Pence’s rigid conservatism (plus far more on farm aid than you’d ever want to know!)
  4. Pence and the press (with some thoughts about the reduced size of Indiana’s political media)

Stop cluttering our state constitutions!


At Slate today, I’ve got a story on Kentucky’s newest constitutional amendment, which enshrines, of all things, the right to hunt. I started digging into this topic because it’s a perfect example of how more and more people are overloading our constitutions with  unnecessary or deeply ideological amendments. To me, at least, that’s not what constitutions are for.

The story’s focus shifted a bit once it became clear how hands on the NRA had been (and once the NRA itself became a more urgent story). Still, I wanted to write here about the state-level pressures behind this new amendment. We know why the NRA wanted the right to hunt — but why did Kentucky legislators like Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo?

Stumbo wouldn’t return my emails or calls, but I heard several interesting theories from statehouse insiders. One was that Stumbo, a Democrat, hoped the amendment would boost his party’s rural legislators in this year’s election. Republicans made their biggest push in decades to take back the Kentucky House, which meant trying to (nonsensically) link their opponents to federal initiatives like Obamacare. But things got uglier still. Robert Damron, another Democrat state rep, told me that one group visited the churches in his district and left fliers on the cars claiming that he supported Obama and abortion. “People would call me and ask about the leaflets,” Damron told me, “and I would say, ‘I’m a Christian—I was in Church on Sunday morning. I wonder where they were?’ But welcome to Republican politics in the South.”

The Democrats ended up holding on to a 55-45 advantage in the House, though no one I talked to thought the right-to-hunt amendment had much to do with this. After all, most voters didn’t care because they didn’t see a threat in the first place. But there’s another (and, to me, more persuasive) theory about why Stumbo wanted the amendment. It centers on Kentucky’s Republican-controlled Senate — and on a little-known piece of legislation called the “21st Century Bill of Rights.”

In 2011, Kentucky’s Senate passed its own proposed constitutional amendment — a list guaranteeing ten new rights, including the right to mine coal, the right to post the Ten Commandments, and the right not to buy healthcare. Senate Republicans knew the bill would never pass the House, but they hoped it would appease the local Tea Party and maybe bolster Senate President David Williams as he ran for governor. One of those new rights turned out to be the right to hunt, and several people told me that Stumbo created his own right-to-hunt bill as a strictly defensive measure. By proposing the amendment, the thinking went, House Democrats could table the 21st Century Bill of Rights without any fear that their election-year opponents (or the NRA) would attack them for being anti-hunting.

That’s just politics, of course, but I’ll revive my original point: aren’t constitutions supposed to be one of the few arenas that remain free of such politics? These documents tend to have messy births, but as they mature they become more foundational, more philosophical. That’s how constitutions have worked for a long time, at least. But that may be changing — which would mean that right-to-hunt amendments are only the silliest example of what’s actually a serious and dispiriting trend.

No, seriously: Why do people run for president?

[Talk of the Nation]

I was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation yesterday, talking about my op ed on why presidents run. You can listen here, and you can read the original piece here.

The best caller was an older gentleman from outside Indianapolis, which felt strange since I was doing my end of the interview from Indy’s WFYI. I’m in Indiana right now working on a profile of Mike Pence. Expect more in the future on why people run for governor!