Let not your hearts be troubled , he seems to be saying. And then, all at once, Pence is back on message. As he nears the end of his remarks, his happy-warrior buoyancy gives way to a more sober cadence. The very fact that he is standing behind a lectern bearing the vice-presidential seal is, one could argue, a loaves-and-fishes-level miracle. Just a year earlier, he was an embattled small-state governor with underwater approval ratings, dismal reelection prospects, and a national reputation in tatters. Because God works in mysterious ways or, at the very least, has a postmodern sense of humor , it was Donald J.
Trump— gracer of Playboy covers , delighter of shock jocks, collector of mistresses—who descended from the mountaintop in the summer of , GOP presidential nomination in hand, offering salvation to both Pence and the religious right. The question of whether they should wed themselves to such a man was not without its theological considerations. But after eight years of Barack Obama and a string of disorienting political defeats, conservative Christians were in retreat and out of options.
So they placed their faith in Trump—and then, incredibly, he won.
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In Pence, Trump has found an obedient deputy whose willingness to suffer indignity and humiliation at the pleasure of the president appears boundless. When Trump needs someone to fly across the country to an NFL game so he can walk out in protest of national-anthem kneelers, Pence heads for Air Force Two. Evangelical leaders across the country point to his record on abortion and religious freedom and liken him to a prophet restoring conservative Christianity to its rightful place at the center of American life.
But what does Pence make of his own improbable rise to the vice presidency, and how does he reconcile his faith with serving a man like Trump? Pence himself declined my requests for an interview. Pence has so far showed absolute deference to the president—and as a result he has become one of the most influential figures in the White House, with a broad portfolio of responsibilities and an unprecedented level of autonomy. But for all his aw-shucks modesty, Pence is a man who believes heaven and Earth have conspired to place him a heartbeat—or an impeachment vote—away from the presidency.
At some crucial juncture in the not-too-distant future, that could make him a threat to Trump. His dad ran a chain of convenience stores; his mom was a homemaker who took care of him and his five siblings. Columba Catholic Church.
Young Mike did not initially thrive in this setting. But by the time Pence arrived at Hanover College—a small liberal-arts school in southern Indiana—he had slimmed down, discovered a talent for public speaking, and developed something akin to swagger. In one picture, Pence mugs for the camera in a fortune-teller costume with a girl draped over his lap; in another, he poses goofily in an unbuttoned shirt that shows off his torso. As a freshman, he joined Phi Gamma Delta and became an enthusiastic participant in the Greek experience. Murphy and Pence lived in neighboring rooms, and made a habit of attending Catholic Mass together on Sunday nights.
It was obvious to his fraternity brothers, Murphy told me, that Pence wanted to be president one day. Pence underwent two conversions in college that would shape the rest of his life. The first came in the spring of , when he road-tripped to Kentucky with some evangelical friends for a music festival billed as the Christian Woodstock. After a day of rocking out to Jesus-loving prog-rock bands and born-again Bob Dylan imitators, Pence found himself sitting in a light rain, yearning for a more personal relationship with Christ than was afforded by the ritualized Catholicism of his youth.
It was there, he said, that he gave his life to Jesus.
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The other conversion was a partisan one. Murphy told me another story about Pence that has stayed with him.
During their sophomore year, the Phi Gamma Delta house found itself perpetually on probation. The movie Animal House had recently come out, and the fraternity brothers were constantly re-creating their favorite scenes, with toga parties, outlandish pranks, and other miscellaneous mischief.
The Phi Gams devised elaborate schemes to smuggle booze into the house, complete with a network of campus lookouts. Pence was not a particularly hard partyer, but he gamely presided over these efforts, and when things went sideways he was often called upon to smooth things over with the adults.
One night, during a rowdy party, Pence and his fraternity brothers got word that an associate dean was on his way to the house. They scrambled to hide the kegs and plastic cups, and then Pence met the administrator at the door. Typically when scenes like this played out, one of the brothers would take the fall, claiming that all the alcohol was his and thus sparing the house from formal discipline.
Instead, Pence led the dean straight to the kegs and admitted that they belonged to the fraternity. The resulting punishment was severe.
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Such good terms, in fact, that after he graduated, in , the school offered him a job in the admissions office. Decades later, when Murphy read about Pence vying for a spot on the presidential ticket with Donald Trump, he recognized a familiar quality in his old friend. In the decades that followed, white evangelicals forged an alliance with conservative Catholics to fight abortion, gay marriage, and an encroaching secularism that they saw as a threat to their religious freedom.
With conservative believers feeling under siege, denominational differences began to melt away. In , at age 29, Pence launched his first bid for Congress. He garnered attention by riding a single-speed bicycle around his district in sneakers and short shorts, dodging aggravated motorists and drumming up conversations with prospective voters on the sidewalk.
It was a perfectly Pencian gimmick—earnest, almost unbearably cheesy—and it helped him win the Republican nomination. But he was unable to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Phil Sharp. Pence tried again two years later, this time ditching the bike in favor of vicious attack ads. The race is remembered as one of the nastiest in Indiana history. In one notorious Pence campaign spot, an actor dressed as a cartoonish Arab sheikh thanked Sharp for advancing the interests of foreign oil.
Afterward, a humbled Pence attempted public repentance by personal essay.
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With two failed congressional bids behind him, Pence decided to change tack. Pence also demonstrated a knack for seizing on more-creative wedge issues. By the time a congressional seat opened up ahead of the election, Pence was a minor Indiana celebrity and state Republicans were urging him to run.
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In the summer of , as he was mulling the decision, he took his family on a trip to Colorado. One day while horseback riding in the mountains, he and Karen looked heavenward and saw two red-tailed hawks soaring over them. Before long, he was climbing the leadership ranks and making connections with key figures in the conservative-Christian establishment.
In , as he began plotting a presidential run in the upcoming election cycle, Pence met with Ralph Reed, the evangelical power broker, to seek his advice.
Reed told Pence he should return home and get elected governor of Indiana first, then use the statehouse as a launching pad for a presidential bid. Casting himself as the heir to the popular outgoing governor, Mitch Daniels, he avoided social issues and ran on a pragmatic, business-friendly platform.
When the race tightened in the homestretch, Pence faced immense pressure from consultants to go negative. A former adviser recalls heated conference calls in which campaign brass urged him to green-light an attack ad on his Democratic opponent, John Gregg. Pence refused. Then, in early , Pence stumbled into a culture-war debacle that would come to define his governorship. At the urging of conservative-Christian leaders in Indiana, the GOP-controlled state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed religious business owners to deny services to gay customers in certain circumstances.
Pence signed it into law in a closed-press ceremony at the statehouse, surrounded by nuns, monks, and right-wing lobbyists. A photo of the signing was released, and all hell broke loose. Corporate leaders threatened to stop adding jobs in Indiana, and national organizations began pulling scheduled conventions from the state. What took place instead was an excruciating minute interview in which Pence awkwardly danced around the same straightforward question: Does this law allow a Christian florist to refuse service for a same-sex wedding?