Mike Pence is a fairly easy person to ridicule; what with his perennial, little boy half-smile and the background hovering that is the lot of all American vice presidents.
His weekend speech to students at the private Liberty University, in which he told them to prepare to be shunned for their beliefs, seems on the face of it as ridiculous as the Pence pea-head.
The VP’s contention appeared to be that evangelical Christians like himself, whose conservative beliefs set them against such things as abortion and LGBT+ lifestyles, are no longer safe to practise their faith in modern-day America – for fear or being discriminated against by a progressive, liberal media and political establishment.
Coming from the second most powerful man in America, there is an intrinsic absurdity to such a notion – especially when the only individual with more power than Pence has shown himself broadly amenable to policies which will win the approval of the Christian right.
And, as has been widely noted, the trend at state level is for the rolling back (or attempted reversal) of progressive legislation when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.
So even if the students at Liberty University might not win friends as a result of their views, they may well find the law and the government are on their side – and are imposing those same beliefs on others who do not share them.
This is the crux. It is not the beliefs of people like Pence which cause anger; but the way those beliefs transfer into action and into laws which discriminate against individuals in their day to day lives. That is why Karen Pence, Mike’s wife, provoked outrage when she took a job at a school which bans LGBT+ pupils, for example. And why there have been protests over the introduction of strict abortion prohibitions.
There is also a difference between people being shunned for their beliefs, and being challenged over them. It is much easier for Pence to appeal to a sense of metaphorical martyrdom – to pit the apparently put-upon evangelical Christian community against the rest – than to acknowledge that religious beliefs can legitimately be contested; and indeed should be openly debated.
It is only a short hop from this kind of narrative to one which sees a Christian west under assault either from the Islamic world and/or from an atheistic, amoral liberalism that is undermining traditional values.
At its most extreme end, that can lead to the kind of violence inflicted by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011. But you don’t have to go that far to find similar messaging, co-opting the west’s Christian heritage for ulterior, nationalistic purposes.
There are plenty of writers and political activists – from Ben Shapiro, fresh from his recent, bruising encounter with Andrew Neil, to Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) – who proclaim the demise of Judeo-Christian culture in the face of institutionalised liberalism and the unthinking acceptance of multiculturalism.
For those who count themselves as both liberals and Christians, there should be a clear imperative to stand up to that divisive approach. Just as there is for moderate Muslims in relation to calling out individuals of that faith who have used interpretations of Islam for extreme ends.
The fly in the ointment is that, just as some right-wing commentators and provocateurs like to lump all Muslims together as a homogenous group (usually to justify opposition to the religion), so there are some on the left who do the same when it comes to Christians – either because of a perception that Christianity is intertwined with political and social conservatism; or simply because atheism at its most extreme is no more open to nuance than ultra-dogmatic religion.
That attitude, ignoring as it does the wide spectrum of Christian beliefs, encourages an “us vs them” narrative just as much as Pence’s martyrish nonsense.
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