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 face 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 faced 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 has 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 didn’t specifically mention this, but he’s also 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.”