Vice President Mike Pence warned graduates of an evangelical university over the weekend that they will face persecution for holding “traditional Christian beliefs” once they leave campus.
During a commencement speech at Virginia’s Liberty University on Saturday, the vice president encouraged the Class of 2019 to “be ready” to face opposition because they live in a time when “it’s become acceptable and even fashionable to ridicule and even discriminate against people of faith.”
“You know, throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian. It didn’t even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible,” Pence told the nearly 21,000 graduates. “But things are different now. Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs.”
“You’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture,” he added.
Watch Pence deliver the commencement address at Liberty University below.
Pence cited reports from the United States and United Kingdom governments that suggest Christians are the world’s most persecuted group. He also mentioned recent attacks against houses of worship ― including the deadly attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka and on three historically black churches in Louisiana, as well as those on Jewish synagogues in Pennsylvania and California and mosques in New Zealand.
Pence said the pushback conservative American Christians have faced for their positions on social issues was further proof that they are being persecuted for their faith.
He referred to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious order that challenged the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, and to Georgia’s “heartbeat bill,” which was signed into law on Tuesday. Some production companies have pledged not to film in the state in response to the law, which effectively bans abortion after six weeks. Pence said the boycott was the work of “a bevy of Hollywood liberals.”
He also pointed to the backlash faced by his wife, Karen Pence, after HuffPost reported she was working at an evangelical school that bans LGBTQ employees and students.
“We faced harsh attacks by the media and the secular Left,” the vice president said. “These attacks on Christian education are un-American.”
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Liberty University commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Saturday.
Liberty University is a private evangelical university in Lynchburg with a long history of political involvement. It was founded by Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister who helped seal evangelicals’ ties to the Republican Party in the 1980s. His son, Jerry Falwell Jr., is a close ally and defender of President Donald Trump. Trump has paid several visits to Liberty University, and he gave the first commencement address of his presidency there in 2017.
Pence praised Trump’s legacy during this weekend’s commencement address, touting the strong economy, America’s support of Israel and the 103 conservative judges Trump has helped place in the courts.
“I’m proud to report our administration has already taken decisive action to protect religious liberty, and we’ll continue to do just that,” Pence said. “And I promise you: We will always stand up for the right of Americans to live, to learn, and to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience.”
Online reactions to the vice president’s speech illustrated how deeply divided American Christians are about religious liberty and civil rights. Progressive Christians believe their conservative co-religionists are using religious beliefs as a sword to cut down the civil rights of minority groups. On the other hand, conservative Christians tend to think movements supporting LGBTQ equality or abortion rights are blatant attacks on their ability to practice conservative beliefs in the public square.
As people who believe in the inerrancy of scripture, evangelicals take seriously the Bible’s warnings that Jesus’ followers will be oppressed for their religious beliefs. Even though Christians in America have considerable political and social clout, some evangelicals are concerned about the group’s demographic decline. When they receive pushback on culture war issues, some see themselves as being part of that long line of Christians throughout history who have suffered for their faith.
Fellow evangelicals praised Pence’s speech, and agreed that American evangelicals are being “persecuted.”
“The vice president was quoting the words of Jesus, quoting scriptures,” Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham and a longtime Trump supporter, said on “Fox & Friends,” referring to a scripture passage in which Jesus tells his disciples they will be persecuted for their beliefs.
“That was a great message to these students, to be ready, be prepared,” Graham added.
But Eugene Scott, a Washington Post reporter who covers identity politics, wrote that Pence mainly means conservative, white, Trump-supporting evangelicals when he talks about “Christians.” He said Pence’s rhetoric about persecution could perpetuate the “victim mentality” in America’s culture wars.
“Pence’s characterization of the criticism directed toward conservative Christians focused only on how it makes people like him feel. It failed to address the validity of the pushback or even acknowledge that the criticism sometimes comes from other Christians,” Scott wrote in the Post.
Other commentators from Christian backgrounds indicated the commencement speech was further proof of the so-called evangelical persecution complex.
Hmmm. I’m a Christian and the only people who have ever shunned or ridiculed me for my faith are other Christians.
Mike Pence tells Liberty University graduates to prepare to be ‘shunned,’ ‘ridiculed’ for being a Christian https://t.co/WfbCzl4BkG
— Diana Butler Bass (@dianabutlerbass) May 12, 2019
Liberty University students: Being Christian isn’t about being popular, but few will ridicule you for your faith. Mike Pence was wrong. If like Mr. Pence, your faith leads you to discriminate against others, it might even help get you elected. But hate doesn’t please God.
— Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie (@RevChuckCurrie) May 12, 2019
When Perps play the victim card. -> Vice President Pence to graduates: Be prepared to be ridiculed for being Christian https://t.co/aIhnR7h8yD via @usatoday
— Paul Brandeis Raushenbush (@raushenbush) May 13, 2019
Poor persecuted Pence, he’s ONLY vice president and a member of a party and demographic that have stolen disproportionate power while gleefully oppressing everyone else.
But mercy me, sometimes people say mean things about this extremely wealthy and powerful person! The horror! https://t.co/n15UfLWsEJ
— Chris Stroop (@C_Stroop) May 12, 2019
Whenever we face shunning or ridicule, may it be because our faith pushes us to stand on the side of justice and equality. https://t.co/yTHpdruORw
— Faith in Public Life (@FaithPublicLife) May 13, 2019