Vice President Mike Pence popped into the 40th-anniversary celebration of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family to remind members he’s a devout Christian politician who has their back. And, he says, so is President Donald Trump.
After the group’s president, Jim Daly, introduced Pence as “one of us,” the vice president spoke for 30 minutes on Friday, on both foreign policy and domestic issues. Unsurprisingly, Pence focused quite a bit on abortion, reiterating the Trump administration’s commitment to what he characterized as the "timeless values” Focus on the Family advocates first.
He repeatedly referred to President Trump as both an “unwavering ally" of Christian evangelicals and a believer himself — calling him “a leader, a believer, a timeless defender of the values that will make America great again.” He described Trump as someone who “advocated in the public square for values our public needs to hear, now more than ever.”
Pence’s comments are hardly surprising — after all, his evangelical faith and religiously motivated stances on abortion and LGBTQ rights are well-known. But the intensity in expressing them on Friday was striking. Pence thanked Focus on the Family for donating an ultrasound machine in his name to a faith-based crisis pregnancy center. (These centers, which are marketed like typical abortion clinics but are set up to persuade women to avoid abortions, make up a major part of Focus on the Family’s efforts.)
Yet Pence’s remarks seemed particularly designed to remind his evangelical audience that, policy-wise as well as personally, the president stood in their corner. He repeatedly appealed to the president’s personal convictions — referring to Trump and Trump’s family as yet another one that’s “personally grateful” for the faith-based philosophy of marriage that has traditionally stood as the cornerstone of the organization’s advocacy program.
Elsewhere, he referred to Trump as a “good friend.” He highlighted the president’s executive order on religion and churches’ freedom of expression (which a number of critics, including Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, have pointed out is more symbolic than useful), characterizing it as an example that the president has “been standing for the things that the people in this room and this ministry have stood for.”
He said signing the order showed the president “stood without apology for the God-given right of every American to live out convictions in their faith ... whatever the country they call home or the creed they profess.” He said Trump stood for the “vulnerable: the aged, the disabled, and the unborn.” He promised a full defunding of Planned Parenthood, as well as a new post-repeal approach to health care based on “freedom,” “personal responsibility,” and the free market — all to raucous applause.
At other times, however, Pence’s remarks seemed to subtly reassure evangelicals of his influence in the White House to bolster religiously motivated policy. He told the story of how Trump “personally” sent him to the January anti-abortion March for Life highlighting that Pence first brought up the possibility of attending. The way Pence framed the story highlighted the fact that the president, busy with affairs of state, was having a “hard time figuring out how he could get away” to make the customary phone call to the organizers of the march.
"I said rather sheepishly, ‘Well, you know, they invited me to speak too,’ and the president looked up at me … he just pointed at me and said, ‘You should go.’ And I went because Donald Trump wanted me to go!” This year, Pence became the highest-ranking member of government ever to attend the annual march.
It was a skillful rhetoric move: one that conveyed Trump’s support for the evangelical agenda even as it cemented the role of Pence — a more natural evangelical mouthpiece — in shaping Trump’s decision. The delicate tightrope Pence walked reflects the complexity of the relationship not just between Donald Trump and his evangelical voter base, but also the much broader one between Focus on the Family and Washington.
Focus on the Family’s roots are in Reagan-era culture wars
Focus on the Family, which was started by Christian psychologist James Dobson in 1977, is one of a number of politically allied Christian organizations that came of age in the 1970s. The wake of the civil rights movement had led the GOP to actively court white Southern voters, who had traditionally voted Democrat (in what’s popularly known as the “Southern Strategy”).
Their language about an older, better America echoed in newly founded Christian organizations devoted to what they saw as “religious freedom” (including the freedom to practice segregation) like Jerry Falwell’s “I Love America” rallies. The rhetoric of these groups combined a longing for the revival of American “family values” (including traditional gender roles in the face of the mainstreaming of feminism), and blended religious and cultural nostalgia.
Once Jimmy Carter — a born-again Christian and a Democrat — failed to enact what his critics saw as sufficiently hardline policies, many of these organizations threw their weight behind his Republican challenger: Ronald Reagan.
Falwell’s "Moral Majority,” founded in 1979, spent $10 million in advertising for Ronald Reagan, ushering in an era of close connection between Republicans and Southern Christian evangelicals (and recasting Southern whites as a major GOP voting bloc). While Falwell’s Moral Majority disbanded in 1989, figures like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Focus’s own James Dobson remained vital voices at the intersection of GOP politics and culture into the 2000s.
Dobson in particular rose to particular prominence in the 1990s and 2000s. His vast and colorful media empire lent itself naturally to the political stage — at one point, Dobson’s listeners outstripped listeners to NPR. Under Dobson’s leadership, Focus on the Family grew from what was essentially a Christian family advice radio show to a vast political lobbying group. Its priority issues include abortion. It’s provided 655 grants to faith-based crisis pregnancy centers, including funds to purchase ultrasound machines, which are used to capture images of fetuses to distribute to pregnant women in an effort to discourage abortion. The group had also become a counter to LGBTQ rights, fighting against same-sex marriage laws and, until 2009, running Love Won Out, a controversial ex-gay ministry.
The organization is also deeply involved in paragovernmental structures like the creation of the National Prayer Committee, the lobbying group behind the National Day of Prayer.
A change in leadership saw Focus on the Family reassess its relevance
The late 2000s saw Focus on the Family negotiate a less powerful position in the public sphere. President Obama was elected, and the position of white evangelicals in America seemed to be under threat both by the wider winds of cultural change and the more specific demographic shift as Christians became proportionally more black and Hispanic.
Around this time, Focus on the Family withdrew somewhat from its more explicitly political stances. Dobson retired in 2009 and his successor, Jim Daly, emphasized a more conciliatory approach, focusing on results rather than ideology: Daly partnered with the alternative independent weekly the Colorado Springs Independent to encourage area families to take in foster children, and engaged in outreach with the evangelical Hispanic community, which Focus had previously largely ignored. The group’s explicit lobbying arm, Focus on the Family Action, was renamed Citizenlink to create a greater separation between the arm and its host unit.
The Trump White House, however, seems to have emboldened religious right evangelicals, particularly with Pence as vice president. The elderly Dobson endorsed Trump at the Republican Convention, later telling reporters that he believed Trump had become a born-again Christian. "Only the Lord knows the condition of a person’s heart,” he said. “I can only tell you what I’ve heard. First, Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit. ... If anything, this man is a baby Christian who doesn’t have a clue about how believers think.”
Dobson’s language is hardly unusual in certain evangelical circles, where the president’s less-than-Christian personal character is often glossed over or explained in a wider theological context. He is characterized as an instrument — witting or otherwise — for the divine plan, often likened to the biblical Persian (and pagan) king Cyrus, who delivered the Jews from Babylon. At the time, old-guard evangelicals’ support for Trump was seen by some as the death knell of that brand of megachurch, big-budget, GOP-friendly evangelicalism, especially when compared to the firebrand opposition of younger evangelical leaders like the Southern Baptist Convention’s firmly anti-Trump (and pro-Twitter) Russell Moore. Since Trump’s victory, however, the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction.
All that makes the subtext of Pence’s remarks at the Focus on the Family anniversary particularly pertinent — and his approach particularly skillful. In praising the organization, he’s also praising its approach — and, particularly, an approach to the GOP-evangelical alliance that dates back to Reagan. His domestic policies, like abortion and what he calls “traditional” marriage, are certainly a major part of that alliance. But as much of his speech and proposed policies were about symbolism of this partnership as they were about actionable plans.
Take Pence’s promise on foreign policy, for example. “If the world knows nothing else,” Pence told his audience, "the world will know this: America stands with Israel.” In fact, in the wake of Trump’s visit to Israel, Trump’s uncritically pro-Israel stance is less certain. He already seems to have gone back on his promise to move the symbolically important US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the divided Jerusalem, something some critics have seen as a symbolic mitigation of his more unequivocal backing of Israel during the campaign. But by evoking the narrative of Israel, which is so vital to many evangelical Christians as a symbol of divine promise, Pence can signal to his audience that Trump is “on their side.” Even as the subtext in his story about the March for Life indicates that he (and not Trump) is the one really looking out for their interests.
Ultimately, Pence’s speech signals a return of the compact between the Reagan-era style of evangelicalism and the GOP. He’d give Focus on the Family victories both concrete and symbolic, but he wanted something in return: "The president and I are counting on your support. We need your energy, your enthusiasm, your conviction.”
And, presumably, their votes.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the source of funds of the ultrasound donated in Mike Pence’s name. The funds came from Focus on the Family.