At Notre Dame University today, Vice President Mike Pence told graduates to be “men and women of integrity and values.” The headlines around this commencement speech are all about the protest (150 students, parents and faculty members walked out), but I am more interested in understanding what Pence thinks — how he makes sense of the world, of the President with whom he serves, and of the values that guide his life.
The question is especially on my mind because this was Pence’s second commencement speech this weekend. Yesterday he spoke at Grove City College where he told graduates that whatever their choice of vocation, “the same call of leadership falls on each of your shoulders.” Then he lifted up Donald Trump as an exemplar. So there is the puzzle. If integrity matters, how can he serve and admire Trump (ahead of even Ronald Reagan in his admiration) when Trump frequently lies, cheats and demeans others?
Pence’s remarks at Grove City about leadership are worth quoting at length:
First, to be leaders you must inspire those around you by being salt and light in every walk of life. Remember now, people follow people they respect. So first and foremost you must aspire to be men and women of character.
Secondly, servant leadership, not selfish ambition must be the animating force of the career that lies before you. For it’s written, whoever would be first of all, must be servant of all. Your education these past four years has prepared you to lead. You hold within you all that you need to leave this place and succeed. All you need to add to it is courage.
C.S. Lewis said memorably that courage was not one of the virtues, it was actually a form of every virtue at the testing point. If you aspire to lead, you’ll need courage because leadership brings both honor and opposition.
Anyone who dreams big will encounter those who think small. Anyone who dares to step forward will find those who’d rather they stayed put. And anyone who thinks they can will always hear from those who are sure they can’t.
You know, you need look no further than a friend of mine as an example of leadership and perseverance: The 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.
Can Pence seriously mean this?
For argument’s sake I’ll grant Pence his claim that Trump has perseverance. But “character?” “Servant leadership?” “Integrity?” I just don’t see how that case can be made. What value touted by evangelical Christians has Trump not mocked with his life? Truthfulness? Fidelity? Generosity? Trustworthiness? How can Trump be an exemplar, a leader to follow, for Pence or any evangelical?
Thinking about that question, I’m reminded of Emma Green’s recent piece in The Atlantic on Franklin Graham Is the Evangelical Id. Graham, a prominent evangelical, is the son of Billy Graham and today leads both the evangelical organization his father founded and the international relief charity Samaritan’s Purse. Green notes that Graham is both determined to be apolitical but also is frequently immersed in politics. “Graham takes comfort in Trump’s election,” she says. Here’s what Graham tells her about why:
“[Trump] did everything wrong, politically,” Graham told me. “He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended black people. He offended the Hispanic people. He offended everybody! And he became president of the United States. Only God could do that.” Now, he said, there’s “no question” that God is supporting Trump, Graham said. “No president in my lifetime—I’m 64 years old—can I remember … speaking about God as much as Donald Trump does.”
Is this the answer for Pence as well as for Graham? That it doesn’t matter what Trump has done in the past or even how he lives his life today? That he is God’s chosen person, and therefore he is the one we must follow and exhort others to follow?
Or is there some other possibility?