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Key moments from V.P. Mike Pence’s commencement speech at Taylor University in Upland Ind. on Saturday, May 18, 2019.
Michelle Pemberton, michelle.pemberton@indystar.com

WASHINGTON – When Mike Pence made his first successful bid for Congress in 2000, he explained to his young children how their lives might change – and why it was worth it.

He and his wife, Karen, showed their kids an image of a fetus in the womb. If elected, Pence would try to end abortion.

That anecdote included in a new book on how Pence’s evangelical faith shapes and guides the vice president is likely to both cheer those who appreciate his faith and worry those who don’t.

The latter had their fears stoked by a book published last year in which authors Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner argued that Pence’s ultimate goal is to establish a government based on biblical law, or “Christian Dominionism.”

That book, “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence,” prompted charges of religious bigotry from Christian conservatives who support Pence.

In “The Faith of Mike Pence,” which will be released Aug. 6, author Leslie Montgomery also describes how his faith is central to who he is. But the Christian author, who previously wrote about Condoleezza Rice’s faith, does so in a flattering way.

Although the Pences did not speak to Montgomery, they apparently gave their blessing for her to talk to close friends, longtime associates and prominent Christian supporters of Pence specifically and the Trump administration generally. (Bill Smith, a former top aide who now lobbies the administration and still participates with Pence in an “accountability” group, reviewed the manuscript.)

Rules about women

Montgomery does quote a different former aide saying Pence’s much talked about practice of not being alone with a woman other than his wife was a challenge to work around. But she also quotes Sue Ellspermann, who served as Pence’s first lieutenant governor, calling it a “non-event.”

While Pence regularly refers to scripture, continuously studies his dogeared Bible, and prayers with and for others – including those he beat out for the job of Trump’s running mate – Montgomery writes that he does it without being offensive to those who don’t share his devotion.

Friends gave various explanations to the often-asked question of how Pence could so readily align himself with Trump, especially after the release during the 2016 campaign of the Access Hollywood video in which Trump bragged about groping women.

A modern-era Queen Esther?

Is Pence a modern-day Queen Esther, serving Trump for “such a time as this”? Did he jump at the chance to be – like a Joseph or a Daniel – a godly influence on Trump? Is he like John, the “beloved apostle?” Or maybe he’s a “paintbrush in God’s hand” to help Trump do the right thing, as conservative activist Ken Blackwell describes it.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t believe in the transformational powers of God, then there’s something missing in your understanding of Christian faith,” Blackwell said.

Whatever the motivation, Johnnie Moore, an informal spokesman for the group of evangelicals who advise Trump, calls Pence the “most influential evangelical ever in American public life.”

Steeped in the Bible

If his faith is central to who Pence is, the Bible is central to his faith.

“He spends a lot of time in the Word. I think it’s a love of his, but also a real discipline,” said Jay Steger, a close friend who connected the author with Pence’s “inner circle.” Steger told Montgomery that while a lot of guys would watch a ball game if they have some spare time, “Michael would grab a Bible (with) a longing of `Let me get in the Word to better understand some things.’”

His Bible, which sat on his desk in Congress and in the governor’s mansion, is described as dog-eared with underlines and margin notes on every page. Pieces of scripture are woven throughout his speeches.

Immediately after becoming governor, Pence initiated a weekly Bible study at the governor’s mansion, Montgomery writes. One of the first things Pence did after becoming vice president was start a Wednesday morning Bible study group for Cabinet members.

Praying for Chris Christie

After the Pences got off the phone with Trump when he’d offered Pence a spot on the ticket, and even before telling their children the news, they prayed for Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich and others who had wanted that call.

In most gubernatorial staff meetings, which began with a prayer, Pence would reference scripture that he had been reading. But while Ellspermann said that “it was very clear to everyone that Mike was guided by a Higher Being,” she also said he “captured a level that if you were not a devout Christian, you were not offended by it.”

And Ellspermann told Montgomery she was not bothered by Pence’s practice of not being alone with a woman to avoid even an appearance of impropriety.  During most meetings they had, Pence’s office door was left open. On a rare occasion, it would be closed if the topic was sensitive.

“It was a non-event,” Ellspermann said. “I am a feminist. If it had gotten in the way, I’d have been the first one to let him know it was a problem, but it really just was not.”

However, former congressional aide Ryan Reger said making sure that Pence could adhere to his rule “was hard to do.”

“But it showed you how much he valued his marriage that he would put those kinds of safeguards up,” he told Montgomery.

Avoiding temptations

Pence also gave his wife veto power over his congressional schedule, in part to make sure he wasn’t gone too many nights from home.

And Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, recounted that when Pence offered a job on his congressional staff to someone married with children who was living in another state, Pence said it was mandatory that the man’s family move with him to Washington. Reed said Pence didn’t want the aide exposing himself unnecessarily to a place of numerous temptations.  

Reed, who said Trump wouldn’t have won 81% of the white evangelical vote without Pence, said Pence helped narrow Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees to three. And then Pence came up with what Reed called the brilliant idea of settling on one. Each of the final candidates were asked who they would pick if it wasn’t going to be them, Reed said. The two other than Neil Gorsuch picked Gorsuch.

The Supreme Court opening was one reason Trump persuaded many Christian conservatives he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton. But that choice was tested.

Why Pence stuck with Trump

Pence’s decision to stick with Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood video was “a pivotal moment and basically signaled to Republicans that we should stay on board the Trump ticket,” said former Rep. David McIntosh.

“Mike could have decided to walk away from it,” McIntosh told Montgomery. “They would have lost, but he’d kept his reputation intact. And he and Karen obviously felt called to stay there and continue to serve Trump.”

Before Pence was sworn in, he received a personal blessing from James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, at a private prayer service for a small group of friends and family.

“The Scriptures teach us that wisdom is being able to perceive things from God’s point of view,” Dobson said.

That’s what Pence has said he’s always tried to do since putting his life in God’s hands as a young man.

In a 2006 C-SPAN interview, Pence said he reads the Bible to discern what God wants “as opposed to getting up every day and deciding what I want to do.”

“For me and my house,” Pence said, “we serve the Lord.”

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