Mike Pence, Postmodern Evangelical Catholic Conservative

Not long ago, evangelicals and Catholics hated each other. So how can vice presidential candidate Mike Pence describe himself as an ‘evangelical Catholic’? Because he’s a product of his times.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

When Mike Pence and Tim Kaine take the stage tomorrow night in Farmville, Virginia, the vice presidential debate will be a showdown between two very unconventional Catholics.

Kaine, as is well known, is a progressive Catholic whose focus on the church’s social gospel was sharpened during a year’s mission in Latin America. But while media coverage of Indiana Governor Mike Pence has tended to depict him as a standard right-wing conservative Christian, this label belies the complexity of his own spiritual journey.

To be sure, Pence’s views are beloved of the Christian Right, and anathema to progressives. He is perhaps the most anti-choice, anti-LGBT governor in the nation, going out of his way to find innovative ways for the state to impose conservative Christian moral views on everyone else.

But Pence is also very much a creation of the last half century of American political-religious life. Born and raised Catholic, he became a Catholic youth minister and reportedly wanted to be a priest. But according to interviews Pence has given over the years (interestingly, he has more recently declined to talk specifically about his spiritual evolution), while in college from 1978-81, he began blending his Catholicism with Evangelical Protestantism. “I made a commitment to Christ,” Pence said. “I’m a born again, evangelical Catholic.”

Interestingly, Pence’s religious evolution came at precisely the time “evangelical Catholic” ceased to be an oxymoron.

From the mass migrations of Catholics to the United States in the 19th century through the 1960s, Protestants and especially Evangelicals regarded Catholics as disloyal, superstitious idolaters. Many openly preached that the pope was the Antichrist. And it is widely understood that anti-Catholic sentiment doomed the presidential candidacy of Al Smith in 1928—and almost cost John F. Kennedy the election in 1960.

Indeed, much of the twentieth century’s supposedly liberal, Protestant-led campaigns for the separation of church and state were, in fact, bitterly anti-Catholic. In the first half of the twentieth century, Protestants railed against Catholic parochial schools, claiming that they taught not just superstition but sedition as well. The Protestant-led temperance movement associated Catholicism with alcohol abuse.

The crusade was based as much on race as on religion — older English and Northern European Americans slandering newer Irish and Italian ones. But an “Evangelical Christian” in, say, 1940, would be as preposterous as a Jewish anti-Semite.

That all changed in the 1970s and 1980s — precisely the time when Pence underwent his personal conversion.

At that time, threats posed by the civil rights movement and sexual revolution of the Sixties turned the former adversaries into allies. Tentatively at first, Catholics and Evangelicals (Southern Baptists in particular) began to make common cause against desegregation and feminism, and to a lesser extent the nascent gay rights movement. The “New Christian Right” was about to be born.

As one of the founders of the Christian Right, Paul Weyrich, told historian Randall Balmer, it took a while to bring the camps together. For example, Evangelicals didn’t care about abortion in the 1960s and 1970s; indeed, Evangelical leaders had earlier ridiculed the Catholic doctrine that life begins at conception, and argued that, in any event, such religious doctrines should not dictate public policy.

According to Weyrich, what really united Catholics and Evangelicals was opposition to civil rights. After Brown, Evangelicals began imitating Catholics, setting up their own, segregated private schools in parallel to public ones. This effort intensified as a wave of Supreme Court decisions removed prayer from public school and allowed the teaching of evolution. And when, in the 1970s, the federal government began clamping down on these racist private schools — the Evangelical Bob Jones University first and foremost — Evangelicals found themselves in a similar situation to the Catholics they had once opposed.

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Both sides adjusted their doctrines. Evangelicals swiftly adopted Catholic teaching on abortion, both as a matter of political expediency and as part of their anti-feminist “pro-family” agenda. Catholics stopped crusading against the death penalty. And both sides abandoned their earlier positions that religion should stay out of politics. (Jerry Falwell, another founder of the Christian Right, had said in 1964 that “preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul-winners.” Then times changed.)

By the time Mike Pence made his “commitment to Christ” in his freshman year of college, the differences between Catholic and Evangelical communities had become as much stylistic as doctrinal. Evangelicals stress a personal relationship with Jesus; their services are often emotional and intense; and they emphasize an idiosyncratic approach to the Bible that is at once “fundamentalist” and innovative. Catholics, meanwhile, have more mediation between the individual and God, more ritual, more formality, and more doctrine as interpreted by the Church hierarchy.

In the mid-1990s, it is reported, Pence began attending Evangelical churches, including megachurches. This, too, coincides with an increase in cooperation between conservative white Catholics and conservative white Evangelicals — not just as a marriage of convenience, but as an authentic rapprochement. Politically, this period perhaps culminated in the “Manhattan Declaration” drafted and signed in 2009 by leaders from both camps, committing to a set of principles on which they agreed and agreeing to effectively set aside their remaining differences. Religiously, it has seen Evangelicals embrace the pope and some aspects of Catholic ritual, and occasional statements of coexistence from the Vatican.

Both of Pence’s steps toward Evangelicalism, in other words, came as Catholic and Evangelical communities grew closer together.

By now, the old enmities are long gone. Evangelical and Catholic groups have fought against reproductive choice, LGBT equality, and modern science for forty years now. They have won significant victories, particularly in education, where home-schooling and religious schools now receive enormous government subsidies. They have moved the needle on ‘religious liberty’ to the point where states like Indiana protect a religious person’s right to discriminate against others.

Pence’s hybrid faith also matured at a time of increased religious hybridization of all kinds. It’s not uncommon today for Americans to identify with multiple faith traditions, or to incorporate aspects of one into another: Buddhist meditation, Sufi chant, the melodies of Christian Rock, and countless other religious forms have migrated to new religious contexts. It is the age, as I’ve dubbed it, of iSpirituality.

Hybridization is not all sweetness and light. Progressive Catholics have denied that there can be such a thing as an “Evangelical Catholic.” Catholics and Evangelicals are often rivals overseas, as in Brazil, where Evangelical congregations are actively drawing converts from Catholicism. And anti-Catholic rhetoric does persist in some parts of the Christian Right, including some of Donald Trump’s twitter trolls.

Yet in a way, Pence is actually a more contemporary religious figure than Kaine. Kaine’s faith is less familiar to casual observers, since it combines a devout Christian faith with progressive politics. But that combination has been around, in Catholic and Protestant forms, for well over a century. Pence may be trying to turn back the clock politically, but religiously, his combination of faiths was born the day before yesterday.

This is not to demean Pence or his faith, of course. On the contrary, it is to suggest that what casual observers might deem as a backward or outdated religious philosophy is, in fact, quite recent. In fact, neither the progressive Catholic nor the Evangelical Catholic fall into the simplistic categories one often hears today. Even when it presents itself as conservative, American religion is in a state of constant change.