Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series of three by Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner, the authors of the new book, “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
This is the second in a series of three op-eds tracing the long path of Vice President Mike Pence’s ambition, from college, where he found a form of evangelicalism that weds theology to Republican politics, to the national stage– and a job that puts him a short step away from the presidency. Part one: Mike Pence’s plan to outlast Trump
An outgoing young man, Mike Pence once modeled spring clothes for a local department store and served as an altar boy at the Catholic church his family attended. He excelled in debate contests, was class president at his high school and embraced the Democratic Party, just like his Irish immigrant grandfather.
As a college freshman, he was elected to head his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta. He also took command of a fellowship group, Vespers, which met in the campus chapel every Tuesday evening. At the frat he turned in his brothers for drinking beer. At the chapel he passed judgment on his peers.
People who met Mike Pence at Hanover College say something happened there to change him. In the fall of 1977, when he arrived, Hanover was the kind of liberal arts school where young minds were gently opened by professors and classmates. Pence moved in the opposite direction there, becoming more rigid and doctrinaire as he studied for a history degree.
Eventually his faith led him to reject some friends and even regard his fiancée, Karen, as a sinner whom he would have to forgive in order to marry. These habits of mind, later revealed in his hostility to equality for gay people and even climate science, were formed when he was barely an adult.
Vespers was organized around songs and testimonies of faith. It offered community to students who were adjusting to the emotional challenge of leaving home. It also gave the guitar-playing Pence the opportunity to preach with the zeal of a new convert to right-wing Christianity. His schoolmate Linda Koon recalls a charismatic fellow who turned cruel when she failed to meet his definition of true faith.
“He was rigid, condescending and exclusionary,” Koon said in an interview. “You had to fit into his little pocket of Christianity, and I didn’t fit.”
Koon’s problem was that she couldn’t recount a dramatic come-to-Jesus tale of Christian conversion. “He acted like he had been struck by lightning,” she said. “I had just grown up in the Lutheran Church and had always been a Christian. That wasn’t good enough. He told me that wasn’t good enough, ‘God doesn’t want your kind.’ It was a very narrow view of an infinite being.”
His lightning moment
The conversion story Pence told then, and many times later, found him at a Christian music festival where he answered a call to approach the stage and declare a commitment to Jesus. Pence, who loved to perform, was moved by the chance to stand at the center of a public ritual.
Years later he would say: “My heart really finally broke, with a deep realization what had happened on the cross, in some infinitesimal way, had happened for me, and I gave my life, and made a personal decision to trust Jesus Christ as my savior.”
From then on, Pence moved steadily toward a form of evangelicalism that reserves heaven for a certain type of believer and marries theology to Republican politics. Pence was coached in his beliefs by a Hanover schoolmate, L. John Gables, who was bound for a career as a preacher.
In a recent sermon Gables noted with disapproval that America has entered an “age of tolerance and inclusion” and urged his flock to stand against it, because “there is no other way” but God’s.
Gables has preached that in his brand of faith Jesus Christ is “the only assured way of salvation.” He justifies an aggressive form of religious activism as a matter of tough love. At college, his friend Pence delivered a harsh public verdict on the condition of Linda Koon’s soul in a campfire circle at a Vespers retreat. As she told us in an interview, Pence’s evaluation of her fervor was followed by a recitation of her supposed sins, including her attendance at a wild party at the fraternity where Pence was in charge.