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Mike Pence and the Christian Conflict on January 6
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Mike Pence and the Christian Conflict on January 6

How right and left get Pence wrong.

The name Mike Pence conjures up strong emotions, on both the right and the left. To the right, on January 6 he was the wrong kind of Christian. To the left, he’s forever stained by all that happened before.

The left’s narrative is clear. Pence was Trump’s enabler-in-chief, the man most responsible for giving conservative Evangelicals moral permission to vote for Donald Trump. He was the man who stuck with Trump through scandal after scandal. The last thing we should do is lionize him for doing his duty on January 6. 

Here’s the New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie, for example, writing yesterday to rebut any impulse to honor Pence for resisting Trump:

Yes, the vice president ultimately refused to take part in Donald Trump’s power grab. But this isn’t heroic. He did not go above and beyond his constitutional obligations. He simply chose not to break the law. He did close to the absolute minimum of what we should expect from a person in his position. To borrow a phrase from President George W. Bush, it is the soft bigotry of low expectations to act as if Pence did anything exceptional.

The narrative on the right is also clear. Pence simply didn’t have what it took to stop the steal. At a pivotal moment in history, he flinched. That’s Trump’s story, an account he repeated yesterday at a “Faith and Freedom” conference in Nashville: 

Millions of Republicans agree with Trump. Look at this chart of Republican approval of Trump, Pence, and Mitch McConnell conducted one year after January 6. Note exactly when the Pence plunge began:

He suffered a catastrophic loss of GOP support exactly when he “simply chose not to break the law.” Four years worth of love and loyalty melted away in a few short hours, at the very moment a mob called for his death and rioters were only a few short feet away. 

I reject the narrative from both sides. First, the right is wrong. It should be thankful that Mike Pence stood firm against a corrupt president and thankful for the profound Christian contrast he offered to a Christian nationalist insurrection. In those moments he demonstrated the difference between the lust for power and the quest for justice and presented a model of what Christian public engagement can and should look like.

When Pence became the focal point of the mob’s rage, it crystalized a religious conflict between two competing visions of religion in politics. The mob’s focus was on power, and through power it intended to “save America” from Joe Biden and the Democrats. Trump—and the riot—were a means to an end, and the “strength” they sought was the strength to disrupt the government and defeat their hated enemies.

The Christians in the mob weren’t the only believers who focused on power. Evangelicals were engaged at every level of the fight to overturn the election. Trump’s Evangelical chief of staff, Mark Meadows, texted Ginni Thomas, “This is a fight of good versus evil . . . Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues. I have staked my career on it.”

One of Trump’s key attorneys, Jenna Ellis, is an outspoken Christian. Prominent members of the Evangelical legal community rendered aid. The legislative plan hinged in large part on Evangelical members of Congress raising transparently frivolous election objections.

Pence’s focus, by contrast, was on justice—upholding the rule of law—and the courage he sought was the courage to ignore the howls of the mob and defy the demands of a deranged president to preserve his office. If you doubt that January 6 was a thoroughly religious moment for Mike Pence, read this:

Day 3 of the Jan. 6 special committee hearings was all about Vice President Mike Pence, and the emotional climax involved a classic story from the Hebrew Bible.

It came during nearly two-and-a-half hours of testimony from Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, when U.S. Rep. Pete Aguilar of California asked how Jacob’s faith had guided him during that fateful day. The lawyer described fleeing to a secure location with the vice president as a mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” stormed the Capitol.

While they were in the bunker, Jacob said, he pulled out his Bible and turned to the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

“Daniel 6 was where I went,” he said, “and in Daniel 6, Daniel has become the second in command of Babylon, a pagan nation that he completely faithfully serves. He refuses an order from the king that he cannot follow, and he does his duty—consistent with his oath to God. And I felt that that’s what had played out that day.”

Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, noted that an ordeal that began with scripture ended with scripture: 

“At 3:50 in the morning, when we finally adjourned and headed our ways,” Short said in the video clip, “I remember texting the vice president a passage from Second Timothy, Chapter 4, Verse 7, about, I fought the good fight. I finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

When Evangelicals believe that our nation’s fortunes depend on either having Christians in power or with close access to power, then power will always be the primary goal. It is perceived to be the precondition to justice.

Yet that’s not the biblical model. A commitment to justice does not require a commitment to power. As Pence demonstrated in that fateful moment, a commitment to justice can even require a Christian to relinquish his power and surrender his authority. 

Pence’s action was so obviously legally and biblically correct that one would think that Evangelicals would rally to his side. And some have, including some Trump voters. I’ve also talked to a number of Never Trump Christians who—like me—view Mike Pence through a different lens. But millions still scorn him. 

In that respect, there is nothing new under the sun. When God’s people chose the insurrectionist Barabbas over Jesus himself, they were not uniquely evil or even all that unusual. The desperate quest for power is a constant human temptation, and when people are gripped by the spirit of Barabbas they will scorn, reject, threaten, or sometimes even try to kill all those who stand in their way. 

The spirit of Barabbas has gripped much of the American church. That same spirit grips it still. 

And this brings me to my problems with the left. I strongly disagree with those who denigrate Pence’s courage on January 6. Yes, he “merely” did his duty, but we have a long and proper tradition of honoring those who do their duty under extreme duress. A fireman who runs into a burning building is “doing his duty.” So is a soldier who responds with courage under fire. Yet we honor them unreservedly, as we should.

Why do we honor those who do their duty under duress? Because sometimes doing what’s right requires every ounce of courage a man or woman might possess. 

Millions of Americans have rightly critiqued those politicians and public figures who abandoned their previous principles to support Donald Trump. We rightly shake our heads at displays like this, from Lindsey Graham:

In fact, it was entirely right to critique Pence’s many compromises in the years before January 6, but the prevalence of cowardice demonstrates the difficulty of courage. If it was easier to do what’s right, then we’d see more virtue. Why do we tend to see better individual and institutional behavior under better leaders? Because better leaders make it easier for normal, everyday men and women to stay true to their values.

The same principle works in reverse, and it was a prime reason why Trump was so thoroughly and systematically destructive to American institutions and culture. When the leader is corrupt, he creates barriers to virtue. 

A healthy national culture both condemns cowardice and honors valor, even when valor is simply part of the job. And we should do both with an immense measure of humility. How many of us have proven our own courage under similar circumstances? Pence faced threats to his family, threats to himself, threats to his power, and threats to the rest of his career. How many of us have prevailed in the face of such pressure? 

To scorn courage in such circumstances further incentivizes cowardice. At least the cowardly retain their political power and their political home. When the left scorns conservative courage, it contributes to the isolation of the courageous. 

My view is different. I know Pence’s history. I disagreed with him frequently. But when a mob howled for an American Barabbas, Mike Pence said no. He relinquished power, saved our nation from a constitutional crisis, and defeated a Christian insurrection.  He did his job when his job was hard, and our nation should be grateful for his stand.

One more thing …

In this week’s Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I do a deep dive into the spiritual dimensions of January 6 in part by referring to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the difference between two central characters, Boromir and Faramir. I promise the episode isn’t too much of a nerdfest.

If you haven’t tried The Dispatch’s newest podcast, today’s a good day to start

One last thing …

I love this song by my neighbor JJ Heller. It’s an antidote to animosity and a reminder of God’s constant presence. 

“Every sunset is a stained glass window. Every park bench is a pew. There’s a sanctuary everywhere I go. When my eyes are open, I see you.”

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David French

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.