Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent book is “The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
At the Southern Baptist Convention this week in Dallas, it looked as if things were going well – that they were changing for the better. In a remarkable turn, the convention supported a strong resolution condemning the abuse of women and affirming their role in the life of the church.
The Baptist church was forced to face its unsavory and patriarchal side, and it did so with gusto, admitting openly that the Baptists have throughout their history “wronged women, abused women, silenced women, objectified women.” They did this in the wake of recent allegations of sexual misconduct among some church leaders.
As a former Baptist (turned Episcopalian), and the son of a minister, I felt buoyed by the news that the church was responding. Perhaps the light had dawned.
Then Mike Pence arrived.
He was there on Wednesday to address the nearly 10,000 delegates, known as messengers, at an annual meeting whose purpose is to discuss spiritual matters.
But Pence was there for another reason. To sing praises, yes – but for his boss. And indeed after some pro forma plaudits for his convention hosts, he quickly pivoted to his agenda: an overtly political pitch for Donald Trump’s administration.
To say it was shameless – a tragically missed opportunity to do actual good – hardly captures this performance. “It’s been 500 days of promises made and promises kept,” Pence declared.
He sang the glories of the tax cut, of the President’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and of Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal that had been forged with the world’s major powers by the previous administration. He talked about Trump’s efforts to “secure our borders.”
He touted, for the assembly, Trump’s “deep respect” for people of faith, and he mentioned the efforts of the administration to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which holds that nonprofit organizations that received tax exemptions – churches most importantly – should not endorse political candidates or risk losing their exemptions.
There is, indeed, a wall in America between church and state – an important one that has been crumbling. It is the wall that Trump should be strengthening, not one on the Mexican border.
Hearteningly, a number of delegates to the convention reacted badly to Pence, including J. D. Greear, the newly elected president of the denomination. “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal,” he wrote on Twitter. “We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention – but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”
Greear gets at an important point that, for all his pious posing, Pence avoided. The message of Jesus – the real core of the Christian faith – is about taking the Good News to the poor, to those in trouble, to prisoners, to refugees, to those who live on the margins of society. It’s about recognizing, as Saint Paul said, that “In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free man, male nor female.” [Galatians 3:28]
It was irresponsible and perverse, to say the least, for Pence to tout in this setting the “accomplishments” of Donald Trump, who has shown repeatedly in these long months of his early presidency that he represents the opposite of Christian values: a tone-deafness when it comes to the Christian message, a politician who courts a particular audience in a disgracefully self-serving manner, a contempt for women, and for the poor. His practice of social justice is situational, rarely in the service of all. That is, he grants favors, like a monarch.
If Pence had seen fit to use his time wisely, he might have told us something about his own spiritual journey, and perhaps focused on how the example of Christ has shaped his thinking. I don’t doubt that his religious convictions have played a role in his life. It might have been quite thrilling had he actually quoted Jesus, who said: “You cannot serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” [Matthew 6:24]
But that didn’t happen.
Everyone who cares about what Jesus really meant to the world, his mission of mercy and forgiveness, should worry about the appearance of Pence in this nakedly partisan role in this spiritual setting.
That Pence himself was so willing to endorse a particular candidate in such an embarrassing way in front of the nation is troubling, and I hope that those who invited him to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention this year feel duly chastened by the sensible people in their midst who reject this sort of blandishment.