Vice President Mike Pence has spoken very carefully on LGBTQ rights — in a sort of code language — ever since taking office.
Whereas he once emphatically stated that same-sex marriage would cause “societal collapse” and vigorously pushed a law in 2015 in Indiana that would allow businesses to turn away LGBTQ people — backtracking only after a nationwide backlash — Pence now makes inexplicit references, signaling his viewpoint to evangelical Christians, a key constituency for President Donald Trump, while trying not to offend everyone else.
Pence has changed his demeanor on the issue from his days as a conservative radio host, as a GOP House member and as governor of Indiana. But he certainly hasn’t made any announced change in policy when it comes to marriage equality or anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people.
And Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who announced his historic candidacy as the first out gay Democratic presidential contender this week, is now putting Pence on the defensive, causing him to run from giving clear-cut answers about what he’s claimed are his profound and deeply-held religious convictions, which have driven his policy positions.
It’s a turnaround in how LGBTQ rights and religious beliefs have played out in presidential politics. And it’s a blueprint for the Democrats moving forward.
A sampling of Pence’s coded language was evident at the Conservative Action Conference last month. Pence said in a speech that “freedom of religion is under attack in our country,” echoing a claim made often by evangelical leaders, except that they point explicitly to a supposed threat by LGBTQ equality.
“My own family recently came under attack just because my wife Karen went back to teach art to children at a Christian school,” Pence continued, without explaining that Karen Pence took a job at a Virginia private school that bans LGBTQ students and employees, and even deems such employees as engaging in “moral misconduct.”
Pence didn’t need to say the words “gay” or “transgender” since the evangelicals in the audience inside and outside the room knew exactly what he was talking about. The vice president is a symbol to them of Trump’s commitment to their agenda, and Trump has indeed moved to roll backLGBTQ rights in so many areas even as he, like Pence, doesn’t openly talk much about it.
Speaking in code has its advantages for a larger audience that likely won’t get the vague references, since what worked in 2015 and prior in a red state doesn’t play well on the national stage in 2019, and could even turn off potential supporters.
After Pence’s speech at CPAC, for example, I interviewed a New York college Republican leader on my radio program who sat through the speech and who said he supported marriage equality. He said he wasn’t “very socially conservative” but nonetheless “liked” Pence and didn’t view him or Trump as hostile to LGBTQ rights.
This, even as the Trump administration has banned transgender people from the military, filed a brief in federal court backing employers who would discriminate against gay and bisexual workers and is stacking the federal courts with judges with records of deep hostility to LGBTQ rights.
By trying to keep detrimental actions under the radar and speaking only in generalities about “religious freedom” while being cordial to gay politicians — such as Buttigieg and openly gay Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and his partner, whom Pence and his wife hosted for breakfast at the Naval Observatory last month — Pence tries to have it both ways. He can wink to evangelicals about his core beliefs and Trump administration anti-LGBTQ actions, while displaying a pious yet open and accepting stance to others.
But now Buttigieg has directly challenged that, exposing how Pence’s politeness toward him and his husband doesn’t translate to a change in Pence’s agenda to strip them of their rights. Buttigieg began his recent critique of Pence by aiming directly at Pence’s perceived moral authority as a Christian. During a CNN town hall last month he rhetorically asked whether Pence had “stopped reading scripture” and how he could “allow himself to become the cheerleader for the porn star presidency.”
Pence and his supporters accused Buttigieg of picking a fight for political purposes and attacking Pence’s faith, while some in the media called it a political “feud.” But it’s undeniable that, for Buttigieg, it is about his very civil rights and an assault by Trump, Pence and the administration on those rights.
And yes, it’s good political strategy, too.
Buttigieg has continued to make references to Pence’s anti-LGBTQ agenda in speeches in which he’s also talked of his own religious faith and his marriage, not ceding the issue to Pence and evangelicals. That put Pence on the defensive in interviews last week, answering questions again with coded language, refusing to say if he’d changed his position on marriage equality or any issue regarding LGBTQ rights while trying not to appear hostile.
When CNN’s Dana Bash asked Pence if he agreed with Buttigieg that God made him gay, Pence dodged and weaved, only stating that, “Pete’s quarrel is with the First Amendment — all of us have the right to our religious convictions.”
Pence also, for the second time in a week, defensively pointed to what he says was a cordial relationship between him and Buttigieg, seemingly mystified that his “friend” Pete was now criticizing him and challenging his views. That prompted Buttigieg to tweet:
“People will often be polite to you in person, while advancing policies that harm you and your family. You will be polite to them in turn, but you need not stand for such harms. Instead, you push back, honestly and emphatically. So it goes, in the public square.”
Whether Buttigieg becomes the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, or doesn’t even place second in any primary, he’s shown Democrats a path to taking on religious bigotry — and they should take it and run with it. More than that he’s exposed how the main asset Pence brought to Trump — piety and religious conviction — is nothing but rank hypocrisy.
That may have appeared evident to many going back to the 2016 campaign and throughout this presidency. But it was rarely ever raised by Democrats, and certainly not so articulately and forcefully. In recent days a protest has erupted over Pence’s giving the commencement address at the evangelical Taylor University in Indiana, with a Change.org petition opposing his visit garnering over 2800 signatures from students and alumni within hours of the university president’s announcement of Pence’s appearance.
Highlighting that hypocrisy now with gusto — and daring Pence to stop speaking in code and proudly state his bigoted beliefs, something evangelicals may in fact begin pressuring him to do if the challenges continue — has Pence tongue-tied and ineffective. And that’s exactly where Democrats want him.
Michelangelo Signorile is host of “The Michelangelo Signorile Show” on SiriusXM Progress.