This is not news to anyone, but I'll state it for the record: Mike Pence is a proud Christian. Over the course of his multi-decade career in public life, Pence has never shied away from talking about his beliefs. And yet, despite all the interviews, speeches, and declarations of his Christian faith, Mike Pence has managed to be elected first House representative, then Indiana governor, and now, the vice president of the United States of America. Currently, Pence is first-in-line to take over the single most powerful position in the country. And yet, he seems to genuinely believe American Christians are under intense persecution.
On Thursday, Pence delivered his remarks at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, which brings together Christian groups from countries where persecution is very real, domestic church leaders, and a smattering of politicians. All were ostensibly present for Pence's remarks, so it's important to draw a distinction here between American names like Rev. Franklin Graham and Senator James Lankford, and the untold stories of suffering represented by many of the international guests present.
After specifically thanking each group, Pence turned to address the crowd. He stated, "Those of you gathered here today are emblematic of millions across the world. You’ve persevered through the crucible of persecution."
Here's the truth: Christians face horrific persecution in certain parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, North Africa, and to a somewhat lesser extent, China. Almost 90,000 Christians were killed for their faith last year alone, a global travesty that rarely gets much coverage. Up to 600 million Christians were barred or intimidated in some way over the practice of their religion.
But let's talk about America for a minute, since religious persecution here is at least, legally, untenable. Pence is among the Christian lawmakers who push discriminatory policies under the guise of upholding Christian values. They regard the changing tides of progress as attacks on Christians and their ways of life — Christians in America, to them, are being persecuted by minorities fighting for equality.
For starters, does Pence actually think a Muslim or a Jewish person would have as smooth a ride to government power as he's experienced? After all, nearly every single American president has professed a Christian faith. I'll say it again: Every American POTUS, save Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, has self-identified as Christian. And though those two belonged to no official denomination, Lincoln talked a lot about God for a non-believer, and Jefferson still espoused a belief in the idea of God. That seems like a rock solid indicator that American Christians need not fear some impending apocalypse over their beliefs.
Then perhaps Pence was alluding in his speech to the failure to "protect" Christians in Indiana from being forced to do business with members of the LGBT community. In 2015, Pence was governor of the Hoosier state, and he initially signed into law a religious freedom bill that would let businesses choose to refuse LGBT customers. At the time, Pence said, "The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action."
That bill came under immense criticism for being discriminatory (which could be another way of saying "persecuting"). The legal case against it, to say nothing of the public outcry, was strong enough that Pence added an amendment that fundamentally altered the bill's original intent.
Perhaps Pence has confused being "unpopular" with being "persecuted." It does seem true that certain Christian beliefs, particularly surrounding gay marriage and sex in general, have fallen out of fashion.
So maybe we need to be more specific about what "persecution" means. According to Merriam-Webster, "persecuting" is defined as "to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief." Based on that understanding of persecution, there are religious groups who are experiencing such in America — Jews and Muslims.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of anti-Semitic incidents occurring in the United States spiked significantly in 2016, and then rose again during the first three months of 2017. Assaults, vandalism, and harassment against Jews and Jewish establishments rose 34 percent from 2015 to 2016. Between Jan. 1 and March 31 of 2017, there were 541 incidents of anti-Semitism recorded by the ADL. Those included 161 bomb threats, six instances of physical assault, and three cemetery desecrations.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also put together a list of ways Muslim discrimination is on the rise, from unfair profiling to attacks on Muslim centers and mosques. While hate crimes are decreasing overall, discrimination against Muslims is becoming more regular.
And let us not forget Pence's main man Trump and his infamous "Muslim ban." Though he claimed that barring the entry of travelers from several Muslim-majority countries was to protect national security, Trump's record on this issue is not reassuring. (Plus, it's kind of hard to say you're not specifically trying to keep out Muslims when precisely that was written on your own website.) During the campaign, Trump said he was open to creating a Muslim registry. His comments on Muslims routinely center on terrorism, which contributes to a culture of stereotyping and fear-mongering. On top of that, Trump said he would prioritize allowing Christian refugees to come to the United States, something Pence ostensibly also supports.
I am wondering, as a Christian myself, how exactly Pence arrived at the conclusion that a Christian life is more valuable in God's eyes than a Muslim life? "Love your neighbor as yourself." That's a pretty well-known verse, and Jesus didn't specify that "neighbor" means only "someone who shares your exact same beliefs." I'm no theologian or great leader, so maybe Pence would prefer to listen to the myriad of those exact people who also disagree with the administration clearly playing favorites.
Religious freedom is one of the bedrocks on which America's very existence rests. In 1790, George Washington wrote a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island that has been a source of hope and defense of religious minorities ever since. "For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," he wrote, promising that "every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
Many of America's founders were Christian, and their ideas and identities are part of why Christianity remains the predominant religion in America. But they were also students of the Enlightenment, a philosophy that emphasized tolerance, rationality, and secular government. Hence, Washington felt no qualms about welcoming Jews and their right to religious practice.
It would behoove Vice President Pence to ask himself what he, or his boss, has done lately in the cause of that noble ideal. Because the evidence suggests that Pence is more interested in protecting and promoting Christians than he is the Constitution, religious rights for all, the peace and sanctity every life deserves.