Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the upside-down logic of conservative religious politics, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence framed a law that permitted discrimination to be about “freedom” and sparked such outrage – “Fix this now” demanded Indiana’s leading paper – that he had to reverse it. Now it’s Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, who’s stirring controversy by associating herself with bigoted ideas. She’s getting help in this regard from President Trump.
A teacher who embraced art therapy as a cause when she became second lady, Pence recently went to work at Immanuel Christian school in Virginia, a school at which she previously taught for 12 years while her husband was serving in Congress and where job applicants are asked to disavow marriage equality for gay adults and transgender identity is treated as “moral misconduct.”
On Thursday the President used his remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast to praise her work at the school. “She is a Marine Corps mom, a tremendous woman, a proud supporter of military families and she just recently went back to teaching art classes at a Christian school. … Thank you, Karen,” he said. His statement came the day after the American Art Therapy Association criticized Pence for the very same thing.
For the President, and the Pences, Immanuel Christian School stands as a positive example of sectarian education. “We celebrate it,” said the vice president. “The freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.” So it is. But when religion is weaponized to express hostility on the basis of sexual identity, it leads to predictable consequences.
In this case, Karen Pence has created division in a field where professionals who would rather be helping others have been in conflict among themselves over the second lady’s bigoted views. The Pences clearly don’t understand the polarizing nature of the issue: “It’s absurd that her decision to teach art to children at a Christian school, and the school’s religious beliefs, are under attack,” said a spokeswoman for Pence.
The controversy began when the association welcomed Karen Pence as an advocate even though her religious ethic is opposed to the profession’s own code. “Our ethics call for us to be nondiscriminatory to the ultimate degree,” art therapist and psychologist Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., told me.
Widely regarded as a giant in the field, Malchiodi helped found Art Therapists for Human Rights in response to Karen Pence’s decision to put art therapy at the top of her agenda and the American Art Therapy Association’s initial decision to work with her. “We’re for human rights first,” she said about her profession, “so it’s odd that she would be embraced.”
The oddness exists on many levels. First may be the fact that Karen Pence is not an art therapist. She is an art teacher, but without special training and ongoing education, art teachers are no more qualified to practice therapy than a bartender. Second, by claiming art therapy as a cause, she has divided a profession that has labored for decades to gain recognition and respect.
A 2017 American Art Association conference was marred by disputes over the Karen Pence and ethical arguments continue to rage over the American Art Therapy Association’s initial alliance with her. On Wednesday, the AATA announced it sent a letter to Pence telling her that her school’s “exclusionary policies toward the LGBTQIA community and reinforcement of antiquated gender roles contradict the values of our profession.”
The letter comes after long-lived arguments among the professionals and after the second lady visited children with cancer in her role as an art therapy booster last year. During that time, art therapist Sarah Fitzsimmons told me, “There’s been a lot of contentious discussions about what should be done” because the profession can use allies. That it took so long illustrates the conundrum that arises when powerful people hide bigotry behind religion and dangle certain benefits to those who are willing to bite their tongues.
The faith the Pences profess does, indeed, oppose equality for gay people and regard everything outside of heterosexuality aberrant and sinful. However, religion doesn’t disqualify these ideas from criticism and when secular authorities use their position to advance them, others have a right to push back. As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence gave businesspeople permission to discriminate for religious reasons. When powerful private citizens objected, he called for a change to the law that would prevent some discrimination from business owners.
Get our free weekly newsletter
As second lady, Karen Pence occupies a quasi-official position with an office staffed by federal workers and a robust presence at WhiteHouse.gov. She is second lady for all Americans and by going to work at a school that practices discrimination, even if it’s religiously justified discrimination, she disrespects lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual citizens. Her choice to attach herself to art therapy, and then work at Immanuel Christian, is equally galling for those who are serious about the profession’s code of ethics.
Gall is, of course, in ample supply in political and religious life, where it’s easy to make a game out of obscuring the facts. Donald Trump, who has broken God’s commandment regarding false witness thousands of times, can attend the annual prayer breakfast and make gains in both realms. With his shout-out to Karen Pence, the President may think he grabbed some kind of bonus. Instead he reminded us that cancer ward photos notwithstanding, the vice president’s wife plays at the game, too.