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If Pence comes close to being POTUS, we must insist on an inquiry into his religious beliefs

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It was been nearly 60 years since a potential President’s religion was a national issue. In 1960, the potential President was, of course, John F. Kennedy. His religion, Roman Catholicism, threatened to derail his campaign. People were afraid the Pope would rule America, that Kennedy would inject his Catholic values into his governance. Kennedy effectively demolished these fears with his speech, in Houston, in which he uttered these famous words:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

The religious issue instantly disappeared as a result of these forceful words, and since then, no one has dared inject religion into Presidential politics. To do so would be regarded as divisive and unseemly.

Until now.

We have a Vice President in Mike Pence whose religion is evangelical Christianity. Pence has never sat down for an interview in which he explicitly outlined his specific beliefs, so we have to infer them from what we know about evangelical theology. The chief axiom of evangelical belief, from which all their other beliefs spring, is the literal interpretation of the Bible. They believe the Old and New Testaments were authored by God, the Father of Jesus, and contain the imprimateur of divine authority. Any conflicting beliefs, they allege, must therefore be false.

From this Biblical literalism several conclusions may be reached in areas of pertinence to millions of Americans. Since Leviticus and other parts of the Bible explicitly condemn homosexuality, evangelicals are compelled to condemn it, and to resist all efforts at marriage equality and other expressions of LGBTQ civil rights. Leviticus also defines the penalty for homosexuality: death.

The Bible also contains its own timeline for the creation of the Universe, including the Earth. This age is generally taken to be akin to the current Hebrew year, which is 5,779. Extreme evangelicals thus argue that the world is precisely 5,779 years old; from this, they conclude that theories of evolution and geological time, as currently understood by scientists, are wrong. The Creation Museum, in Kentucky, carries this notion to its logical next step: the suggestion that Adam and Eve and little Cain and Abel played with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.

This evangelical rejection of the theory of evolution and of geological time is the first step in the evangelicals’ further dismissal of all, or most, of modern science, including climate science. This is why so many evangelicals have joined their hard-right colleagues in denying the reality of climate change. Taken at its most fundamental, their attitude can be expressed as this: Since God created the World for the pleasure and use of Man 5,779 years ago, and God loves mankind and promised (after the Flood) never to harm mankind again, therefore climate change, and the “threats” that climate scientists allege it poses, cannot be true, no matter how firm the evidence may appear to be.

We don’t yet know whether Pence believes in these things, because no one has ever made him talk about them. Does he believe in the death penalty for captured homosexuals? Would he appoint judges who vow to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage? How far would a President Pence seek to ostracize LGBTQ Americans? Does Pence subscribe to the notion that the Universe is 5,779 years old? Does he believe that dinosaurs and humans lived coterminously in Eden? Does he believe that the world’s great geological features—the Grand Canyon, for instance—were formed by Noah’s Flood? The Big Question, in other words, is: To what extent does Mike Pence accept the verdict of science, and to what extent does he reject it?

Why are these answers important? Because Pence may be the next President, and it may happen sooner than anyone thinks. There are two obvious difficulties with an extreme evangelical becoming President of the United States. The first is that national policies must rest upon the firm foundation of fact. We no longer live in the Dark Ages. If you remove fact-based rational thinking from lawmaking, you go down a very slippery slope, towards the abyss of authoritarian theocracy. The second difficulty is intellectual, or perhaps esthetic is the better word: Do we as Americans really want a leader who rejects scientific truth and subscribes instead to superstition? Speaking for myself, the answer is, No. It’s embarrassing.

The American media has desisted from having a discussion about evangelical Christians holding high political office. The reasons why are perhaps obvious: no one wants to be accused of stirring up trouble, of resorting to religious tests that historians have believed are long settled. Then, too, the vast majority of American voters are Christian; the politician or media outlet who appears to be questioning their fitness for office runs deadly risks. The media has thus backed off; it has been very ginger in pressing evangelicals, such as Rick Santorum, Pat Robertson and Mike Pence, from hard questions about specific issues.

But if Pence is elevated to the White House, or even appears to be getting close, it’s time for the media to hold his feet to the fire and demand answers. Pence is notoriously squirrelly in responding to questions he doesn’t like; and usually, reporters let him get away with it because they don’t want to appear to be bullies. America, however, can no longer afford puffball questions and non-answers from evangelical politicians. Pence must be pressed on the issues I’ve outlined above. When he tries to squirm out of answering them—as he will–journalists must stand firm and repeat the question, as often as necessary, until he either answers, or is correctly perceived by most Americans as deliberately refusing to come clean.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    ” the suggestion that Adam and Eve and little Cain and Abel played with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.”
    If that were the case, I think mankind would have been stopped in its tracks right from the start. Or do Evangelicals think that dinosaurs were actually quite small?

  2. They think that the dinosaurs were like big puppies: cute and adorable.

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