Commencement ceremonies are usually opportunities for college graduates to hear a successful person share wisdom and counsel on how to succeed in a world that many young adults find overwhelming.
While Vice President Pence may have attempted to do just that during his Saturday speech to graduates of Liberty University, one of the world’s largest evangelical universities, much of his talk appeared to perpetuate what some call “the evangelical persecution complex.”
The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu wrote:
The roughly 30-minute speech started off sounding more like a political rally, with Pence touting the Trump administration’s achievements, before seguing to religion.
“We live in a time when the freedom of religion is under assault,” he said, pointing to the spate of deadly attacks that have been recently carried out at places of worship in the U.S. and around the world.
People with religious beliefs now must deal with those who feel it is “acceptable and even fashionable to ridicule and even discriminate” against them, Pence said, specifically calling out “Hollywood liberals,” the media and the “secular left.”
He also said: “Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian. It didn’t even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible. But things are different now.”
Not all Christians agreed with the vice president.
Throughout history, the American Christian experience has manifested differently depending on who was practicing the faith, where they were practicing and what that actually looked like. For centuries, the Christian faith has thrived across numerous denominations, multiple interpretations of Scripture and various cultures. So, sweeping statements about what it means to “call yourself a Christian” in the current political climate are just generalizations that betray little thought.
But it is fair to say that when Pence refers to “Christians” in this instance, he mainly means the conservative white evangelicals who backed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. And that is understandable, given that Liberty University is headed by Jerry Falwell Jr., so avid a supporter of the administration that he has called Trump an “evangelical’s dream president.”
And stoking fear in this next generation of Christians — a group that data shows is less conservative than older Christians — might be a tactic to gain support for Trump and Pence, who are largely unpopular among young voters. Anxiety about changing cultural norms was one of the factors that drew conservative Christians to Trump in 2016.
Pence’s characterization of the criticism directed toward conservative Christians focused only on how it makes people like him feel. It failed to address the validity of the pushback or even acknowledge that the criticism sometimes comes from other Christians, including Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who has regularly criticized the Christian worldview guiding the Trump White House.
Religious persecution is real. The congregations of three black Louisiana churches that were recently burned down for reasons that some suspect were racially motivated know this. And so do the congregants of the synagogue that was attacked last month by a gunman; the suspect pointed to his conservative evangelical theology as justification for his hatred of racial minorities.
But accusing “Hollywood liberals,” the media and “the secular left” of persecuting Trump-supporting evangelicals might do little, if anything, to prepare the next generation of leaders to be good citizens working toward the common good in a religiously diverse nation. At worst, it could perpetuate the victim mentality that is so pervasive in our culture wars and that some believe has made this country more politically divided than at any other point in recent history. Such a framing may win you some political battles, but in the long term, it makes it much more difficult for the United States to become “one nation under God,” as Pence and so many others often pledge.