Mike Pence is a pleasant and amiable person. During his tenure as governor of the State of Indiana, he would always reach out in a friendly manner, whether at an official function or informal encounter. When at a restaurant, he would warmly greet us. Once, while walking in the mall, I saw him approaching in the opposite direction. He was dressed casually, sporting a baseball cap. I got the sense that he wanted anonymity. But when he noticed me, he turned towards me and extended his hand in warm greeting.
When Pence was inaugurated four years ago, he invited my wife, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, to offer a prayer of benediction, knowing full well that the prayerful hopes she might espouse might not conform to his ideological stances.
While Governor Pence has often demonstrated a strong support for Israel – including signing legislation allowing Indiana to confront a growing BDS movement and increasing trade and business between Hoosier and Israeli companies – his social and fiscal conservatism combined with his Christian evangelical aligned stances on domestic policy matters have often distanced him from a large part of Indiana’s Jewish constituency. One notable example is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed into law by Pence in March 2015. The law, which allows a private business the right to restrict or limit services to LGBTQ persons on religious grounds, stirred major opposition from business, educational, cultural and progressive religious sectors – including the majority of the organized Jewish community.
Under mounting pressure and after an embarrassing interview on national television – Pence consented to modify the legislation, but the damage had already been inflicted. RFRA caused the State of Indiana considerable loss of revenue, the cancellation of many conventions and millions of dollars spent on a PR firm hired to counter the negative image cast on Indiana. "Indiana Welcomes All" became the new Hoosier motto introduced by the majority of citizens who opposed Pence's ill-conceived efforts. I, with other Rabbis and Jewish laypersons, participated in the city-wide Gay Pride parade and spoke out in support of LGBTQ rights. The Jewish Community Relations Council – the public affairs, advocacy and intergroup relations arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis – adopted a strong position statement against the legislation stating, “RFRA will only serve to further entangle religion and government, and create ambiguity and confusion…. As members of a religious minority who have faced discrimination because of our religious practices, we deeply regret the inherent injustice this law potentially creates.”
After the disastrous consequences of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act became fully clear, Pence continued to adopt positions on immigration and reproductive rights that further alienated him from many in the Jewish community and from progressive religious constituencies across the state. The Catholic Church publicly challenged him after his call to ban the resettlement of foreign refugees to Indiana by bringing a number of Syrian refugees to the city under its resettlement program. The JCRC also affirmed its pro-immigration stance, issuing a statement “condemning without qualification” Pence’s Syrian refugee ban and Trump’s calls for banning Muslims entering the United States.
Pence has sought to advance legislation limiting abortion rights and women’s reproductive freedoms. Some of the strongest supporters of Planned Parenthood in Indiana are Jewish. Governor Pence's restrictive abortion stances counter the religious and moral stance of the Jewish religious tradition and of others who would place a woman's physical and emotional health and needs above the rights of the embryo. Indiana’s Jewish community has a historic trajectory of opposing government interference in issues of personal status, which has frequently meant the imposition of one particular religious viewpoint on the citizens of the state as a whole. The Jewish and progressive religious community believed that Pence's anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, anti-choice positions counter the very foundations of religious and moral values he purports to advance, restricting rather than enhancing religious, moral and civic values.
Toward the end of his governorship, as he was running for reelection, more and more signs reading “Pence must go” were posted on lawns throughout the state. His call to serve as Donald Trump's running mate was welcomed with a sigh of relief by many in the Democratic and liberal constituencies, and even by some Republicans who questioned his potential to be reelected.
Trump and Pence are true opposites, religiously, in personal character, in rhetorical and life styles. But, politics makes strange bedfellows. It might appear that one of Pence's roles will be to soften and massage some of Trump's more egregious statements, such as the crass comments in response to Khzir Khan's remarks at the Democratic convention. Khan, the Muslim immigrant whose son, Capt. Humayun Khan died as an American war hero, was mocked by Trump, claiming that Muslim tradition did not allow Khan’s wife to speak. Pence recently issued a statement, saying that both "he and Trump valued the sacrifices made by Khan and his family,” and stated that Captain Humayun Khan and his family should be "cherished by every American.”
Mike Pence is a friendly person. Yet many of his policies have been less than amicable to vast segments of the constituencies he has served. His doctrinal stances have often shown indifference to the civil rights of others; his ideology has sometimes trumped friendly and compassionate solutions. One is led to wonder whether Pence, in an effort to appeal to a broader constituency, will modify, moderate or reaffirm his and Trump’s positions?
Such are the questions and concerns raised by this marriage of opposites and strange bedfellows.
Rabbi Dennis Sasso has been Senior Rabbi at Indianapolis’s Congregation Beth-El Zedeck since 1977.
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