The ability to voice disapproval and concern about elected officials is a pillar of a free society. But when writers start discreetly attacking politicians’ views based largely on an examination of their faith, this creates a new norm in American politics that threatens to degrade people of faith everywhere.
Tom LoBianco’s new book, “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House,” claims to examine Vice President Mike Pence’s political career and the effect his faith has had on it. Rather than provide facts that allow the reader to draw her own conclusions, Mr. LoBianco attempts to highlight Mr. Pence’s faith journey in relation to his political ambitions. This correlation dismisses the genuine importance of one’s personal faith, and instead insists that personal gain is the main reason for holding religious views at all. This creates a cultural conversation in the United States that undermines religious freedom and stunts the ability of religious people to feel comfortable expressing their beliefs.
Within the political sphere, religion is a large part of the discussion — and understandably so. During election season, voters often want to hear about candidates’ religious beliefs, because it gives them insight into their decision-making process. Indeed, the effects Christianity and religion have had on politics can be traced throughout the course of American history. A dissection of the correlation between Mr. Pence’s personal faith and political journey may provide interesting insights into the cultural landscape of much of the United States. However, when this examination instead becomes a judgment of an individual’s path it leads to a generalizing assumption of his motivation. Then, it is no longer analytical research, but lazy stereotyping within reporting that can have harmful results.
Politicians aren’t the ones who will be most negatively impacted from this type of attack. They are public figures; they sign up for this; and they can take it. The reverberations will be felt among people of all religions, who feel increasingly silenced by the media with every loud criticism of their views.
This public dismissal of religion is having damaging effects on the younger generation, as well. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that rates of adolescents who experienced a “major depressive episode in the last year” increased 52 percent from 2005 to 2017 and 63 percent among young adults ages 18–25. Alongside this pattern is the decrease in people who align with a religious faith. A Pew Research Study shows that from 2007 to 2014, those who answered that they “believed in God” and were “absolutely certain” declined from 71 percent to 63 percent.
Young people continue to have the same questions about God that human beings have asked for centuries, yet they feel an unwillingness to broach these issues due to the public denouncement of religious groups in recent years.
The climate in the media is one that provides an underlying implication to them: Their questions about a higher power are unwelcome, unnecessary and unintelligent. Therefore, as they grapple with questions about universal ideas, they have little space to voice these queries. This leads to a heartbreaking level of fatigue and isolation that should be seen as a cautionary tale of where our civilization is going. When we ignore the questions that have historically driven thoughtful inquiries and resulted in deeper human connection, we miss a crucial opportunity for growth and stunt the insights of future leaders.
In his book, Mr. LoBianco writes,
“The answer to the question of which style of Christianity Pence espouses and how that influences his policies is not as clean-cut as either progressives or conservatives would present … And those answers have everything to do with why he stands so firmly by Donald Trump. That’s the piety part of this book, and so explains the power.”
Mr. LoBianco not only includes many factual errors in his book, but more importantly, he misunderstands the sincerity of Mr. Pence’s faith and makes a generalization about the intent behind his convictions. Rather than start a conversation about religion and politics in America, Mr. LoBianco contributes to the resounding gong of disrespect for faith that Americans hear from the media on a daily basis.
Perhaps he should consider the possibility that religious people do, in fact, believe what they say they do. For many, there is such a thing as servant leadership, prayer and faith.
These qualities aren’t means to an end. They are a way of life, and they are powerful all by themselves.
• Charlotte Pence, daughter of Vice President Mike Pence, is a student at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of “Where You Go: Life Lessons from My Father” (Center Street, 2018).