The Public Discourse just published an essay that Brandon Myers and I wrote about Vice President Mike Pence giving the commencement address this year at Taylor University, our alma mater. Read the essay below:
The vitriolic and severe reaction against Pence by Taylor students, staff, and alumni (not everyone, of course, but a vocal minority) was sad to witness, but not altogether surprising. These days, anyone who is even slightly associated with Donald Trump is thought to be the incarnation of Faust. There was more to say than we could fit in the article (naturally), so this provides an explainer that elaborates on various aspects of our argument.
Why Commencement Speeches are Not Necessarily ‘Political’
We left “political” undefined, but we were assuming a narrower definition. Lexically, we could describe the political as anything related to the polis (city, i.e., the nation), but this would have the effect of virtually making everything political. Instead, we think “political speech” should be more narrowly restricted to speaking at a political event, officially representing a party, politician, or platform, or making explicit arguments related to our shared political life.
One of the fallacies in claiming that Pence’s mere presence at commencement is a political statement or endorsement is the illegitimate transfer of his political office to his actions, words, or whereabouts in other public venues. In this view, a prominent political figure cannot appear or say anything in public without what they say or do being considered political. But there’s nothing about holding political office that turns everything you say in public into a political statement. It’s what such a person actually says or how they conduct themselves which is or is not ‘political.’ 
I suspect Pence won’t make his commencement speech political: he will probably give greetings from President Trump, and he might mention the administration a number of times, but judging from his other commencement addresses (Notre Dame, Hillsdale, Liberty), he will probably stick to congratulatory and celebratory themes.
Another reason why a commencement invitation is not necessarily an endorsement by the school of administration or organization the speaker hails from is that it yields absurd results. Consider the list of 2019 commencement speakers: if Taylor had invited political correspondent and journalist Fareed Zakaria to speak, would this indicate the school’s embrace of CNN or NPR to the exclusion of Fox News? If they had J. J. Watt speak, would this signal approval of the NFL as a professional athletic association or that the Houston Texans are Taylor’s preferred team? If Michael Bloomberg spoke, would this be to support his Everytown for Gun Safety’s position on the gun debate or imply a tacit rejection of the Second Amendment? No. A commencement invitation does none of these things.
If anything, commencement invitations point more toward who the person is, what they might say, or what we could learn from them (even if we disagree). In fact, this is explicitly what Taylor University’s President Paul Lowell Haines said in the announcement: “Mr. Pence has been a good friend to the University over many years, and is a Christian brother whose life and values have exemplified what we strive to instill in our graduates. We welcome the Vice President and his wife, Karen Pence … and thank them for their love and service for our nation, our state, and our institution.” President Haines primarily identified Pence as a friend and a Christian who exemplifies servant leadership in public office. There was no mention of party politics or policy proposals.
In sum, those insisting that commencement speeches are political have just asserted as much in an attempt to use Pence’s unsavory political associations as grounds to disparage and disinvite him.
Guilt by Association
It’s easy to throw out the charge of complicity, but what does that mean? People tend to think that one is complicit by mere association with deviance, but we show this is mistaken. Guilt by complicity has specific philosophical, moral, and legal contours that we should understand before making this charge against others. Complicity, also known as accomplice liability, is when you help or aid someone who’s committing (or going to commit) a crime. The standard of accomplice liability is aiding or abetting: although you may not strike the fatal blow and you may not even be present at the crime scene, you are guilty because you intentionally helped another commit the crime or you had knowledge of the crime and did nothing.
Trump has not been charged with any criminal conduct while in office, and with the Mueller Report now completed it is unlikely he will (i.e., no collusion, no obstruction of justice). Pence had nothing to do with the Mueller mess anyway, so unless there’s another criminal investigation pending that I’m unaware of, this doesn’t seem to be an issue.
However, the real concern by critics pertains to morality, character, and presidential demeanor. Trump is uncouth, rude, and boastful; he lies, distorts, and smears; he inflames and divides; he is unpresidential. Pence has and continues to support the President despite all this. Perhaps Pence is guilty by complicity of these shortcomings as well.
Again, like we explain in the essay, people need to give specific examples of what Pence has said or done that is immoral or evidence of a characterological flaw, not merely that he supports a flawed President Trump. And even if Pence doesn’t take to Twitter to condemn the President for what Americans consider to be beyond the pale, this doesn’t mean Pence doesn’t care or isn’t doing anything.
As far as we can tell, there’s no merit to the charges of complicity against Pence.
Other Charges Against Pence
We highlighted many of the pejorative adjectives used to describe Mike Pence, along with specific accusations. We didn’t have space to address them all—each issue could easily consume an essay itself. Like we said, some of the charges are sensational distortions, while others fall along traditional policy divides. For an example of the latter, take immigration. Critics have charged Pence with being responsible for “separating children from their parents” over the illegal immigration/asylum crisis last year. That particular “zero-tolerance” policy by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early 2018 may not have been the most prudent, but it has been wildly misunderstood and distorted. Either way, Pence probably had nothing to do with planning and implementing that policy, and his support for it (to whatever extent) is not necessarily wrong given how our asylum system was being abused. Generically and simplistically damning Pence for “separating children from their parents” fails to grapple with the complexity of the problem and realistic solutions to it, as well as Pence’s particular involvement or support.
Or consider the lead contamination in Indiana in 2015-2016. The Huffington Post article accused Pence of ignoring the crisis. But if you actually read the letter Pence’s office sent to Mayor Copeland of East Chicago, Pence didn’t ignore the requests from Copeland. The state government did respond with money to relocate vulnerable residents, various agencies to counsel and assess the situation, set up mobile blood testing clinics, blood testing at schools, community meetings, and more. It’s not that Pence was callously indifferent to the suffering of the residents of his state; it seems there was a disagreement over what should be done and the degree to which it should be done, specifically whether or not a disaster emergency should be declared. Perhaps Pence’s office didn’t handle this situation the best—I can’t make that call. But HuffPost’s sensational and accusatory headline completely distorts what really happened. This is just another reason to be skeptical of major news media that so often taint our perception of others.
A Secular Faith
We didn’t have space to elaborate in the article on what we mean by a “secular faith” and how it relates to Pence, but we think it has more explanatory power than traditional party or policy differences. What do we mean by a worldview revolution?
- A theological revolution: “God is dead,” and is replaced by the belief in progress, societal engineering, and technological advancement.
- An anthropological revolution: the embrace of either physicalism that rejects substance dualism (that humans are body-soul composites), or a body-self dualism of a neo-Gnostic sort. Additionally, relational (or utilitarian) personhood theories allow abortion proponents to contend that fetuses are not persons and so killing them in the womb is not wrong. The same ideas can be used to justify infanticide and euthanasia.
- A moral revolution: the rejection of natural law as a common moral compass and foundation for political society, as well as any kind of divine moral revelation. Reason, instead of discerning the Good and orienting our desires and faculties toward it, is relegated to a self-justifying role that rationalizes the desires of the Self asthe greatest good.
- A sexual revolution: the rejection of the metaphysics of design, human biology and anthropology, and natural consequences by which we can know that marriage is a comprehensive union between a man and a woman, that sexual intimacy is a sacred act that should be reserved for marriage, that divorce (as a rendering of that union) should be avoided except in extreme cases, that pornography is evil, that there are only two sexes, and that gender dysphoria is a condition to be treated not a belief to be normalized.
- A familial revolution: following Rousseau, the family is an artificial social construct that is not only malleable but that has enslaved us, and so must be destroyed and replaced by an all-powerful state. A recent tangible example is the Obama’s administration’s “The Life of Julia.”
- A social justice revolution: justice is no longer about human rights, equal treatment under the law, and just deserts according to what each has done, but about an oppressor-oppressed narrative and asymmetrical power dynamics that must be reversed in order to achieve equality of results. Following postcolonial, postmodern, intersectional, and feminist movements, the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, and various critical theories (racial, gender, queer, etc.), justice is now accomplished through internet mobs and social activism that deconstruct the “dominant culture”: whiteness (white supremacy, white privilege), maleness (patriarchy), heterosexuality (heteronormativity and homophobia), cisgender (transphobia), wealth (capitalism), the able-bodied (ableism), nationalism (citizenship and xenophobia), and a host of other “isms,” “archies,” and “phobias.” This entire movement is represented by the key phrases “social justice” and “diversity and inclusion”; disagreement or failure to conform is condemned as “marginalization” or “oppression.”
- A governmental and public square revolution: the purpose of government is not to safeguard human liberties, rights, and justice (properly understood), but to provide every human need and want in order to craft the perfect society. Likewise, the fact-value dichotomy has invaded the public square, banishing all religious convictions or actions on the basis of a distorted understanding of the “separation of church and state.” Any appearance of faith in the public square is myopically labeled as “forcing your religion on others” or motivated by the desire to establish a theocracy.
Not everyone who adheres to a secular faith like this adopts or approves of everything outlined above. But it’s surprising how integrally related many of these ideas are. Bruni and Nixon clearly seem to be operating from such a worldview, and this helps us understand their hostility toward Pence.
For example, consider the charge that Pence hates or discriminates against the LGBTQ community. On the revolutionary worldview, sexual orientation (i.e., sexual desire) and gender identity are not just a part of human identity, but of personal identity. These aspects of subjective experience are believed to be intrinsic and essential to who people are. If this anthropology is true, then those who disagree with LGBTQ beliefs, ways of living, and policies have made a grave mistake about what it means to be human, and what rights, duties, and opportunities are owed to LGBTQ individuals.
However, if this anthropology is flawed then everything changes. On the classical worldview (held by Pence), humans are created as two sexes, male and female, and are meant to complement each other biologically, anthropologically, and socially, and this complementarity is best exemplified in the marriage union where genuine love commonly leads to new life (something that homosexual relationships intrinsically cannot accomplish). Our sex is genetically determined and unalterable, and almost unanimously manifests through biological traits specific to men and women and through our subjective gendered experience. From this perspective, loving the LGBTQ community requires knowing what the Good is for them (both generally and in person-specific situations), and seeking that Good for that community even if they are deceived about their own humanity. When considered in this light, Pence’s policies on the LGBTQ issue are commendable as they will lead to human flourishing and the common good.
The vast majority of the objections to on social media were aimed at Pence being a hateful and vile person because of his LGBTQ views, or because he has not become ‘woke’ to the social justice movement on behalf of immigrants, minorities, and others. While Christians can rightly disagree about many social and political issues, these particular complaints (and the manner in which they were vented) reflect the zeitgeist of this revolutionary worldview that informs and undergirds many of the discussions currently taking place in our public squares. As with many worldview shifts, the change can happen imperceptibly, so we make the differences explicit in the hopes that people will be more aware of these ideological undercurrents.
The Virtues of Pence
As opposed to critics who relentlessly slam Pence for the typical identity politics issues and policy debates, we highlight other aspects of Pence’s character that many critics don’t consider important anymore, but that your average American still holds in high esteem. The point is that if you Google “Mike Pence” + any issue you’re going to get hundreds of articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, The Week, Huffington Post, USAToday, MSNBC, Medium, etc. that point out every supposed flaw of the VP. But not one of them will highlight the virtues we do, nor even attempt to give a balanced or fair view. We do. And in terms of Pence’s character, there is so much more to say. The half has not been told.
If you really want to understand the de-platforming craze and the reaction of campus students who shake in fright of commencement speakers because they are thought to pose an existential threat, read Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. They explain in more detail many of the issues we touch on in our essay, as well as other issues that we must grasp and take seriously in order to save higher education in America and all the students whose futures are in peril.
 One of the grave problems we face as a nation is that civil society is collapsing to various degrees (think: mediating institutions like the family, churches, civic organizations, schools, neighborhoods, local businesses, etc.), and where civil society weakens and rots, political society rushes in. Thus, instead of engaging in local or city affairs, we try to solve all our problems on the national, political scale (the opposite of subsidiarity). For every obstacle we face, we look to the federal government as the solution. This means a speaker who addresses issues like education, family, and employment—all areas that the federal government has not historically been concerned with in America—is immediately labeled as “being political.” This is a symptom of a problem, not a desideratum. I would prefer to see universities, businesses, non-profits, and other civic institutions host a variety of speakers to address numerous issues without every event being praised or denounced as “political.” Of course, our ideas about historically non-political topics will often have political implications, but in an America that is currently so divided and combustible, anything that need not be labeled political shouldn’t be. Politics has its place, but it has lost its natural and rightful place in the order of society, and that’s why common challenges we face are so contentious.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.