Woody Allen used to tell this story in his stand-up act: He once went to work at a white, gentile ad agency. The pay was $95 a week. The job was “to sit in their office and to look Jewish.”
Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, has a similar role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. His job as Trump’s running mate is to stand next to the nominee and look Christian. Trump is on his third wife, thinks “Two Corinthians” is a book of the Bible, and made a fortune running casinos. He needs a character witness. The witness is Pence.
In his speech to the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, Pence talked about the economy, terrorism, and law and order. But his chief message was God. “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” he began. “I was raised to believe in hard work, in faith and family. … The most important job I’ll ever have is spelled D-A-D.” Pence vouched for Trump’s humility, respectfulness, and “devotion to his family.” He pledged to “pray daily” and keep “faith that God can still heal our land.”
The words you’ll hear a lot from Pence, when he talks about Trump, are “this good man.” Pence used that phrase in an interview with Sean Hannity on Friday, an introductory rally with Trump on Saturday, a joint 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, and his convention speech on Wednesday. In an address to the American Conservative Union on Tuesday, Pence said “this good man” four times. “I have a sense of this man. I have a sense of his heart,” Pence told the ACU audience. “It’s time for us to come together, time for us to come together around this good man.”
The idea that’s being projected for public consumption is that Pence’s values somehow rub off on Trump. But what’s actually happening is the reverse. Pence came into the Trump campaign with some firmly stated principles. In less than a week, to conform to his new boss, he has bent them.
Last fall, after the Nov. 13 terror attack in Paris, Pence and other Republican governors tried to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. But in December, when Trump proposed a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Pence balked. “Comments that suggest that Muslims should be banned from the United States are offensive and unconstitutional,” said Pence. “The United States cannot and should not discriminate on the basis of religion. The free exercise of religion is at the very heart of our constitutional guarantee for all persons of this country.” In May, when Pence was asked again about Trump’s proposal, the governor replied: “I’ve had more than a few battles with a Republican president. … I am not immune [to] disagreeing with people who otherwise I support.”
Now that Pence has joined the ticket, however, his tune has changed. In the 60 Minutes interview, he snapped into line:
Lesley Stahl: Mr. Trump, you have called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. [To Pence] Do you agree with that?
Pence: I do. In fact, in Indiana we suspended the Syrian refugee program in the wake of the terrorist attack. We have no higher priority than the safety and security of the people of this country, and Donald Trump is right to articulate that view.
Trump told Stahl he could get around the religious discrimination problem by phrasing the ban in terms of “territories.” The conversation proceeded:
Stahl: So not Muslims?
Trump: You know, the Constitution—there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide as a country, OK? … We’re not gonna allow the people to come into our country. … And if people want to come in, there’s gonna be extreme vetting. …
Pence: [to Stahl] You just asked me if I’m comfortable with that. And I am.
Pence also softened his position on torture. On July 15, 2008—exactly eight years before he was named to the ticket—Pence, then serving as an Indiana congressman, spoke at a House hearing on rules for questioning detainees. Pence defended the use of pressure in interrogations, but he laid down two rules. The first was no torture: “Torture is illegal. Torture is banned by various provisions of the law. I support that.” The second rule was no defiance of international law. Interrogations, Pence argued, must be conducted in a way “that shows our devotion to the rule of law, our veneration for the Geneva Convention[s].”
These principles, too, have melted. On 60 Minutes, Pence repeatedly refused to draw lines against Trump’s proposed use of torture:
Stahl: Mr. Trump wants to bring back waterboarding, and, quote, “a hell of a lot more.” Are you [Pence] comfortable with bringing back waterboarding?
Pence: I don’t think we should ever tell our enemy what our tactics are. …
Stahl: But are you OK with the idea of waterboarding?
Pence: I think enhanced interrogation saved lives.
Stahl: And you’re OK with that?
Pence: What I’m OK with is protecting the American people. What I’m OK with is, when people have the intent to come to this country and take American lives, that we are prepared to do what’s necessary to gain the information to protect the people of this country—
At this point, Trump interjected, complaining that ISIS fighters “chop off heads [and] drown people in steel cages, and we can’t do waterboarding.” The exchanged continued:
Stahl: Would you use their techniques?
Trump: Those techniques get information. I don’t care what anyone says.
Stahl: [to Pence] Are you agreeing with him?
Pence: What I can tell you is, enhanced interrogation gleaned information that saved American lives and—I was informed—prevented incoming terrorist attacks on this country from being successful. The American people expect the president of the United States to be prepared to support action to protect the people of this nation. And I know Donald Trump will.
Stahl: Have you answered me?
Pence: I have.
What we’re seeing in this interview is corruption. We often think of corruption as an institutional process, usually involving money. But in this case, corruption is simply the surrender of principle in the face of power. Trump and Pence sit side by side, the candidate and his Christian adviser. The religious man is supposed to be guiding the irreligious one. Instead, it’s Pence who capitulates. He will no longer criticize the proposed ban on Muslims. He will no longer draw a line against torture. He supports whatever Trump thinks is “necessary.” He dares not contradict the boss. In this room, only one god is being heard.
This scene, this genuflection of one man before another, is a warning. It’s what happens when you worship power. It’s what happens when you use religion to glorify a man rather than change him. Across the Republican Party, one politician after another is bowing to a new god, a god who preaches religious enmity, ethnic conflict, violence, and torture. The Republican National Convention has become the temple of Trump.