WASHINGTON –The last time Vice President Mike Pence spoke at Liberty University, he used the backdrop of one of the world’s largest Christian schools to vouch for candidate Donald Trump’s faith credentials during the 2016 campaign.
When Pence returned to the school Saturday to deliver the commencement address, his remarks were more personal.
Pence, who has been facing criticisms of his own religious views recently, warned graduates that they have to stay strong against the challenges they’ll get from Hollywood, the media and the secular left.
“Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs,” Pence said. “Be ready.”
With his wife, Karen, sitting on stage as he spoke, Pence recounted the “harsh attacks” he said they endured when she returned this year to teaching art at a Christian elementary school where she’d worked when he’d served in Congress. Unlike her previous stint, this time Karen Pence faced scrutiny after news reports pointed out that the school bans gay students and teachers.
“Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian,” Pence said. “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.”
Pence said the graduates will be asked not just to tolerate things that violate their faith, but to endorse them.
Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr., left, speaks with Vice President Mike Pence at the Liberty University commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Photo: Taylor Irby, AP)
Pence didn’t specifically mention this, but he’s been a target on the presidential campaign trail, where Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg has gotten attention for questioning how Pence can square his faith with both his support for Trump and his opposition to gay marriage.
And the commencement address that Pence is scheduled to deliver next week at a Christian school in his home state has divided Taylor University. An online petition started by a Taylor alum complains that the address will make the school “complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration’s policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear.”
By contrast, Pence received a warm welcome Saturday at Liberty University where president Jerry Falwell Jr. is a strong supporter of Trump. Four Liberty University alumni work in Pence’s office. Six of Saturday’s graduates had been students in Karen Pence’s classrooms.
In 2016, when release of a video showing Trump boasting crudely about grabbing women’s genitals threatened to bring down his campaign, Pence traveled to Liberty University to urge people of faith to rally for Trump.
“Shortcomings are no excuse for inaction,” Pence said.
After Trump took office, he chose Liberty University for his first commencement address. As Pence did this year, Trump in 2017 encouraged graduates to stay tough under criticism. And he also thanked attendees for their support.
“Boy, did you come out and vote,” he said. “Boy, oh, boy, you voted, you voted.”
About 81% of white evangelicals voted for the Trump/Pence ticket. That’s a greater share than supported George W. Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012.
A recent Morning Consult survey shows why Pence’s message Saturday that Christians are under attack might resonate with his audience.
The April survey asked people if they felt respected by various types of groups including late night comedians, people who work on Wall Street, national journalists, and college professors at elite universities. Less than 30% of white evangelical Protestants felt respected by any of those groups. But nearly two-thirds said that Trump respected “people like them.”
“There is that feeling that Trump quite smartly identified and has made one of the central parts of his appeal,” said Daniel Cox, a research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. “He respects conservative Christians even if he is not exactly one of them in terms of how he’s lived his life.”
Graduates chat as students continue to walk in for Liberty University's Commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Saturday, May 11, 2019. More than 45,000 people attended the event where Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement speech. (Photo: Taylor Irby, AP)
Pence referenced the Biblical figures of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is warning graduates that they are going “to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture.”
The three men refused to worship a golden idol and were thrown into a fiery furnace. But after King Nebuchadnezzar saw them walking around in the flames unharmed, accompanied by the son of God, he had the men removed and said their God should be worshipped.
“Just know this: If, like Shadrek, Meshach and Abednego you end up in the fire, there’ll be another in the fire,” Pence told the graduates, who applauded the reference.
Speaking “not so much as your vice president but as a brother in Christ,” Pence encouraged the students to “stand firm” and be prepared to share the reason for their hope, doing so “with gentleness and respect.”
“Because our nation and our world need that message of grace and love,” Pence said, “maybe more now than ever before.”
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