Why You Shouldn't Judge Mike Pence's Marriage

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When two consenting adults decide to take a vow of marriage and live out their days in partnership, what's the typical stance on judging that? For anyone alive and paying even marginal attention during the last decade or so, the overwhelming answer has been: don't do it. The choices made by grownups about their love lives are usually enshrined as private by left-leaners, perhaps even sacred. But it seems such adherence to withholding judgment doesn't always apply to certain populations — for instance, evangelical Christians like Mike and Karen Pence.

The tone of a recent Slate piece about the vice president's marriage, for example, is unmistakably a mocking one. Heather Schwedel references a Washington Post article on the second lady to come up with her own conclusions about the Pences. They are described as "thick as prayer-loving, Bible-studying thieves" in the first paragraph; the second one scoffs at how they got engaged. "You've likely already heard about ... the gold cross engraved with the word 'Yes,' and the hollowed-out bread proposal. (You may not have known it was possible to get bread 'shellacked' as a keepsake, though.)" Only foolhardy Midwesterners with limited exposure to the finer things in life would know about that, obviously!

For most Democrats and progressives, Pence was immediately a controversial politician. He has taken an unapologetic stance against abortion, cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, and supported a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as governor of Indiana that even fellow Republicans criticized for being discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. Those are legitimate reasons to press Pence about, and belong in any reasonable public debate. But where is the relevance of his relationship with Karen Pence in any of those arguments?

And in fact, Schwedel's piece veers dangerously close to a straight-up condemnation of the Pences' marriage. "For all the consultation and trust and faith the Pences share, their marriage ends up looking like a pretty traditional, patriarchal-figure-priviliging [sic] one ... Being a 'prayer warrior' sounds intense, but I bet it involves a lot of emotional labor of the sort women often end up supplying." Tell me more about how this kind of statement would ever be made about a marriage between Muslims, many of which could also be described as "traditional" and "patriarchal-figure-privileging."

A point worth exploring does later appear in Schwedel's piece, as she picks up on a tidbit from Mike Pence back in 2002. In an article for The Hill, Pence revealed "he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either." Schwedel cites a legitimate question raised by Elizabeth Spiers that naturally arises from such a declaration: "I also wonder if, taken to a logical extreme, Pence could argue that he shouldn't have to hire women on a religious freedom basis."

Except, that answer is already available. Pence hired several women while he served as governor of Indiana; Jen Pavlik is his current deputy chief of staff. Given that Pence has and does work with women not named Karen Pence, it seems rather ludicrous to assume he'd be unable to sit down with female leaders like Angela Merkel.

The Pences' marriage "rules" are indeed rare, and perhaps seem odd to those who have never been close to evangelical culture. I read this piece and was reminded of a moment during my first job after moving to Texas, working in a rural school district. One of the secretaries accompanied us on a trip to Austin for a conference, and when we left to "tour" 6th Street one night, she politely declined. She and her husband had agreed not to go to bars without each other. It seemed like a loss, but I want to put emphasis on the word "seemed." Because here were two people trying to make their marriage last. Where's the right of anyone to tell them what guidelines are and are not appropriate in that endeavor?

In April 2015, The Wall Street Journal released a poll showing that more Americans were all good with electing a gay or lesbian to the White House than an evangelical Christian. The numbers weren't even close, with 61 percent reporting they were "enthusiastic" or "comfortable" with a gay or lesbian POTUS, to just 52 percent saying the same for an evangelical.

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Essentially, only half the country could stomach a president who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian. My assumption is that much of Americans' discomfort with the idea comes from the policies that are often supported by public figures in that demographic. Evangelical Christian politicians are usually vocally pro-life, resistant to gay marriage, and vehemently not on the "democratic socialism" agenda of progressive figures such as Bernie Sanders. Anyone and everyone is welcome to argue and interrogate those political stances.

But the interpersonal aspects of the Pences' marriage are not at all relevant to that discussion. If Pence insisted his wife not leave the house, or declared that no woman should question her husband, or had never hired a single female, then a deeper look at what his marriage signified would be warranted. None of that is going on, though.

One thing liberal pundits might keep in mind is that, as with any religion, there are an array of views amongst Christians themselves. Most of them do not follow the same "rules" as the Pences, but they probably agree with the underlying idea of striving to stay faithful.

Comparing their views to those of the Taliban draws a stunning false equivalence that, even if made in hyperbole, is still outrageous. As a refresher, the Taliban: publicly execute murderers and adulterers; force men to wear beards and women to wear burkas; don't allow any television or movies; and "disapprove" of girls attending school past the age of ten. Let me know when Mike Pence signs off on that outline for governance.

There seems to be an attempt here to paint the Pences with the "weird" vibe, a feat made easier by their unpopular and eminently uncool religious belief system. And maybe their marriage strikes some of us as odd, quirky, or even disquieting. But like the Obamas, they've raised two lovely daughters and have been married quite some time now. Doesn't that count for anything?

With all the actual damage President Trump and his VP could do to policies that liberals and progressives support, why anyone is talking about the mode of Mike Pence's marriage proposal and how he doesn't seek out private meals with women who aren't his wife — this is a question without any obvious good answer.