INDIANAPOLIS — The parishioners at College Park Church in North Indianapolis won’t be repeating the “vile and hurtful” words uttered in that Access Hollywood Donald Trump tape that was leaked to The Washington Post. And not just because they’re at church on Sunday morning—they’re not the type of people to use the sort of words the world heard Friday afternoon.
They’re in shock because a man they love and respect, a man who worships with them as often as he can, a fellow parishioner, has unwittingly become a party to that tape: Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
In a statement he released Saturday, Pence said he could not defend, in any way, what Trump was caught saying on a hot mic during the 2005 taping of a segment of the entertainment news program Access Hollywood. Over the weekend rumors swirled that Pence wanted off the GOP ticket, but after Trump’s debate performance Sunday night, Pence has made it clear that he’s sticking with the Republican presidential nominee.
But political decisions aren’t part of the calculus of the devout evangelical Christians who worship at the College Park Church.
Pence is known to say he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” He has often spoken about how his faith serves as the greatest guide in his life. And that faith has led him to take on some very conservative positions. He is firmly against same-sex marriage and has succeeded in passing some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. And he has even advocated for government funding of conversion therapy in the past.
The College Park Church is 20 minutes north of downtown Indianapolis. It’s an inarguably conservative evangelical church, and the Pence family have been parishioners since they returned to Indiana in 2012 after Pence won his race for Indiana governor. According to a source familiar with his schedule, Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, attend Mass at College Park as often as they can, but they aren’t officially members of the church. Attending Mass regularly has become more difficult as of late as they have been traveling around the country in pursuit of the White House.
I attended two services at College Park Church and spoke to parishioners and church staff. In separate conversations, via phone, I spoke to two friends of the Pence family. Nearly all requested anonymity, even when speaking positively of the Pence family, for fear of upsetting them. The church’s lead pastor, Mark Vroegop, told me, in person, that he had a long-standing policy of not talking about Pence’s faith to reporters.
Everyone I spoke to was highly protective of the Pence family. A few spoke admiringly of a man who insists on being called “Mike” as opposed to “Governor Pence.” Others spoke of the bond Mike and Karen Pence share. The governor has said in the past that he will not attend events where alcohol is served unless his wife of 31 years accompanies him.
And that anecdote illustrates why Friday’s leaked Access Hollywood tape is painful for those who know and love the Pence family. The parishioners I spoke to are angry with Trump for exposing the Pence family to such shame. When asked if Pence should be held partially responsible for the episode given that Trump has a long public record of judging women on their bodies, no one was willing to place the blame on the governor. One parishioner said to me, “Talking about finding a woman’s body attractive, even in the lewd and offensive way Trump did, does not come close to advocating for rape, which is what he did.”
One parishioner, who is also a dedicated church volunteer, even said he wanted to punch Trump in the nose (one other person said something similar). When asked if that was Christ-like behavior, he said, “All of us are sinners.”
Most said they hated the idea of voting for Trump but they had to support “Mike,” so they would grudgingly vote for the Trump/Pence ticket.
A family of four told me outside the church that they were all writing in Pence’s name instead of voting for the Trump/Pence ticket. “I can’t check a box with that awful name,” the matriarch of the family told me.
Still, some others said they simply couldn’t vote for Trump but weren’t voting for Hillary Clinton, either. The reasons they gave for not voting for her didn’t involve any social or religious issues but the “emails and Benghazi.”
In the two services I attended at College Park Church, there was no fire and brimstone, no preaching about social issues like abortion or LGBT rights, and certainly no talk about the 2016 presidential race.
The only messages were about love and kindness.
Except for one revealing line at the start the 9:30 a.m. service.
One of the pastors (there are several throughout the service) was talking about the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ.
The pastor continued, “And even on our political landscape, [Jesus] is sovereign. He sets kings up, and he takes them down, and we can worship him for that, can we not?”
The parishioners responded with a resounding “Yes!”
A woman in front of me looked at her husband and said, “Trump.”