Trump, a twice-divorced mogul more accustomed to talking about his sex life than about books of the Bible, has focused recently on shoring up the strong support he already enjoys among evangelicals. Picking Pence could easily be seen as an overture to conservative Christians.
“He’s got to solidify it. I guess that’s why he went for Pence instead of Gingrich,” said Michael Cromartie, who directs the program on Evangelicals in Civil Life at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, talking about former House speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. “For religious conservatives in general who have some doubt about Mr. Trump’s character, better to surround himself with somebody who’s a rock-solid social conservative.”
Cromartie said that while Pence wasn’t widely known on the national stage until his battle over the religious freedom law last year, he was already well-known among politically concerned conservative evangelicals, starting in his years in Congress before becoming governor. In 2011, Pence led the congressional fight to defund Planned Parenthood. Conservative evangelicals have long seen Pence as a politician who shares their values, Cromartie said.
After defending the Indiana religious freedom bill for a week, while everyone from the NCAA to Angie’s List threatened to refuse to do business in Indiana if it passed, Pence eventually added an amendment to the bill that said the law would not shield discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Cromartie said Pence’s supporters understood his concession: “He tried his hardest and they know that.”
But others say that Pence lost evangelicals’ trust by signing the amendment defending gay rights.
Mollie Hemingway, senior editor of the conservative publication The Federalist, tweeted Thursday:
Others agreed: They blamed Pence for altering his religious freedom bill. (RFRA, the abbreviation many used, stands for Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)
Still, Cromartie said, Pence enjoys the affection of much of the evangelical community, which might carry over to Trump. “He was not an unknown quantity at all. He’s been respected and revered,” Cromartie said of Pence. “I think there are some people who say, ‘Mr. Trump is not my candidate, but I’m sure glad he’s surrounded himself with Mr. Pence.'”
This post has been updated.