Way back in 1994, when Mike Pence was a twice-defeated candidate for Congress, an unemployed dad trying to launch a syndicated radio show, and an entry on nobody’s VP shortlist, he told a reporter about casting his first vote in a presidential election. It was 1980, Carter vs. Reagan, and Pence could only chuckle that he’d gone with the wrong man. He’d voted for Carter, Pence explained, because he “was a good Christian. Beyond that, there was a sense of, ‘Why would you elect a movie star?’ ”
These days, Pence talks about Reagan a bit differently. During his recent (and successful) audition to be the running mate of a television star, Pence paid Donald Trump the highest sort of Republican praise. “I think he is someone who has connected with everyday Americans like no one since Ronald Reagan,” Pence told reporters.
That Gipper pivot says a lot about how Pence has shifted over the years, as he’s moved from the media to Congress to the Indiana statehouse—how he’s become less candid, less human, and more shamelessly fixated on stoking his career. Pence’s religious beliefs still shape his politics as surely as they did when he voted for Carter. But as part of this transformation, he has alloyed his faith with political expediency, keeping his evangelicalism at the center of his worldview, even as he’s become ever less willing to discuss it.
Pence has a strange conversion narrative. He grew up in a big Irish Catholic family of Democrats in central Indiana, serving as an altar boy, attending parochial schools, and idolizing another liberal president: JFK.
But in 1978, while a freshman at Indiana’s Hanover College, he converted to evangelical Christianity through the influence of a nondenominational fellowship group. “I simply made a personal decision for Christ,” Pence told me in 2012, when I was working on a profile of him after he’d won the gubernatorial race.
Though he was now born-again, Pence’s faith didn’t transform quickly or simply. (Whose ever does?) Post-college, he kept attending Mass and worked as a youth minister at a Catholic church; he even applied to Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University with plans to become a priest. As late as 1994, Pence still described himself as “a born-again, evangelical Catholic.”
You don’t see many of those, even in Indiana, but Pence’s beliefs had not yet defined his politics. He’d gone through a second conversion in college, this one ideological. But the two conversions didn’t always inform each other. After all, Pence voted for Carter because of his faith, but he still voted Democratic. Even when Pence ran for Congress in 1988 and 1990, in the twilight of the Reagan era, he didn’t link his politics and his faith. Both campaigns focused more on his opponent’s lucrative reliance on PACs than on anything remotely religious.
After those losses, Pence stepped away from politics. He ran a successful Indiana think tank, then created an even more successful talk-radio show, a format in which he honed his serene demeanor and his disciplined sloganeering, two skills that have made him a remarkably effective communicator (with a few memorable exceptions). During this period, Pence’s faith also solidified. In the mid-’90s, he started taking his family to an evangelical megachurch in Indianapolis. He coined his most durable slogan, describing himself as “Christian, conservative, Republican—in that order.” He began to approach politics with a more activist bent, as abortion replaced special-interest cash as a chief matter of concern. Asked in 1995 to name the one person he’d like to have dinner with, Pence replied: “Jesus Christ.”
By the time he gave Congress another try, in 2000, it was clear that Pence had changed. He won the seat and held on for the next 12 years, eventually rising to third in the GOP’s congressional leadership. But his faith stayed front and center. Pence refused to campaign on Sundays. He declined to dine solo with women who weren’t his wife. (“It’s about building a zone around your marriage,” he told the Hill.) After 9/11, his first reaction was to gather his staff in prayer. Aides and other politicians often saw him reading his Bible, and Pence would cite specific verses to justify policy arguments. “These have stood the test of time,” he told one staffer. “They have eternal value.” He was frank about the influence of his evangelicalism. “My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,” he told Congressional Quarterly in 2002. “In the Bible, God promises Abraham, ‘Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.’ ”
During his time in Congress, Pence emerged as one of the most privately and publicly devout figures in Washington. But something changed when he ran for governor of Indiana. You could no longer get Pence to address his faith, past or present. When I interviewed him in 2012, I asked about the peculiarities in his religious biography; each time, he evaded. Could he help me understand his strange spiritual journey? “I cherish my Catholic upbringing,” he replied. Could he explain why his faith shifted again in the mid-’90s? “We just felt drawn to worship at an evangelical church.” Could he define himself as a believer? “I’m a pretty ordinary Christian, trying to make that faith real every day.”
It was all pretty stunning to see. The man who once quoted Genesis 12:3 to justify his foreign policy was now speaking in phrases so platitudinous they felt ripped from the chorus of a particularly bad Christian rock song.
But this was all by design. While reporting that profile, I learned of a private meeting Pence had held in the fall of 2010. With his closest aides, he’d plotted out how to run for governor—and how to downplay a record in Congress that included trying to defund Planned Parenthood and trying to block the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” among other social-conservative stands. Instead of highlighting those stands, as at least one adviser had urged him to do, Pence decided to sell himself as a technocratic “jobs and schools” candidate. I asked Pence about that meeting, too. “It was a private meeting,” he replied.
Once elected, Pence began pushing a very different agenda. While the most notorious example came when he signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, Pence’s faith has driven decisions big and small. It led him to sign a new anti-abortion law so restrictive that the American Civil Liberties Union is now suing the state. It led him to award a $3.5 million contract to Real Alternatives, a nonprofit that pushes abstinence education and urges pregnant women not to abort.
“My faith,” Pence told me in 2012, “has continued to be what I hope is the most important thing in my life.” Pence’s beliefs have shifted at least twice—from his family’s Catholicism to an idiosyncratic evangelical Christianity, and from that to a more hardened and ideological version of the same. If, as he insists, faith does indeed order his life, why did he stop being so open about it? Why strip the evangelizing from his evangelicalism?
Good luck getting Pence to comment on that. The easiest answer seems to be that he decided that as his political ambitions grew his public religiosity needed to shrink. There are plenty of politicians who’ve made this same calculation, but few have tried to solve it with Pence’s baggage—or with his bumbling approach. Recall the governor’s infamous appearance on ABC’s This Week in which he tried to defend the RFRA. When George Stephanopoulos asked him if the law licensed discrimination, Pence offered abstract and illogical defenses instead of addressing what most people, whether for or against, saw as the RFRA’s true purpose—an extra defense for Christians who felt under attack by rapidly liberalizing attitudes toward LGBT rights.
But Mike Pence, a man with presidential dreams, could no longer say that. And so the polished communicator simply melted down. Even now, as he starts the biggest role of his political life, Pence still doesn’t know how to receive these questions other than by ducking. He’s always been a better idealist than a careerist. That should make for an interesting marriage with Donald Trump.