Web Only / Features » February 15, 2017
Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos and the Klan’s Long Shadow
The extremism of their agenda contains the seeds of its undoing.
"The promise of a crusade for a purified Christian America is precisely why evangelicals overwhelmingly gave Trump their vote."
Vice President Mike Pence, who likes to say that he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” grew up in Columbus, Indiana, a city of nearly 50,000 people about 40 miles south of Indianapolis. He was raised in an Irish Catholic family but wanted a more “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” as he once told the Christian Broadcasting Network, and in college he converted to evangelicalism during a Christian music festival. As governor of Indiana from 2013 until January, he tried to remake the state in the image of a small Midwestern city like his hometown, largely untouched by the changes that have transformed the nation in recent decades.
Pence is a throwback to an earlier time, but it isn’t the basketball-obsessed, mid-century Indiana of the movie Hoosiers. He’s a throwback to the Indiana of the 1920s, when a populist, grassroots movement—the Ku Klux Klan—grew explosively, becoming the most powerful state chapter in the nation and claiming the governor, half the legislature and 250,000 Hoosiers as members. The movement was always Christian at its core, defending the one true faith—Protestantism—against all heresies, especially the religious tradition of so many eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century, Catholicism.
To say that Pence fits firmly within Indiana’s robust Klan tradition isn’t to say that he would ever associate with the organization, of course. There are occasional attempts to revive the KKK’s formal power in Indiana, but the marches usually highlight its isolation rather than its strength. A few dozen Klansmen shuffle around and bark into bullhorns, outnumbered by protestors and media.
The regalia, rituals and sparsely attended marches have become embarrassing and superfluous. With the rise of the Christian Right in the 1970s and 80s, the Klan’s agenda was largely absorbed into the mainstream of the Republican Party. Even at the organization’s height, racism was only one element in a much broader vision. In 1923, a weekly Klan publication, The Fiery Cross, outlined the organization’s priorities, which included law enforcement, restricted immigration, clean politics, militant Protestantism, respect for the flag, getting back to the Constitution and an independent Klan press. The Klan was also a major force in the Prohibition movement. It’s the zeal to restore order and impose morality on world torn away from its moorings—a world gone mad—that connects Pence and the GOP to the Klan agenda of the 1920s.
That’s a negative project, in part, and the coverage of Pence often focuses on the things that he stigmatizes. His own version of Prohibition, for example, is an intense opposition to marijuana. Pence successfully pushed back against attempts to reform Indiana’s drug laws, which are among the harshest in the nation: Possession of any amount is still punishable with 180 days in prison in Indiana. And Pence’s moral crusade targets a wide swath of minority groups and civil rights. He anticipated the Trump administration’s moratorium on immigration by both blocking Syrian war refugees from settling in the state and attempting to cut off federal funds for those already living in Indiana. In halting that effort, a federal judge said that it “clearly constitutes national origin discrimination.” In 2015, Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which supporters say was designed to protect the civil rights of religious business owners. In practice, it was about empowering conservative Christians to discriminate against LGBT people. Similarly, Pence has spent much of his career waging war on reproductive rights. A year ago he signed a bill, subsequently blocked by a federal court, that would have required aborted fetuses be buried or cremated.
But stigmatization is just half the story. For Pence and the evangelicals he represents, as with the Klan of a century ago, politics is equally about reasserting the foundations for moral authority, which is why Pence’s record on education is so important and may well be the primary basis for whatever political legacy he leaves.
Keeping it “100 percent American”
It has become awkward to talk about the vacuum of meaning in modern life: The language is too earnest, in an age of irony, and it leads easily into the fraught realm of religion and religious dogma. But in the era of the Klan’s peak, even secular writers weren’t shy about bringing it up. They were obsessed with it, and open-hearted about their angst. They feared that science had destroyed the basis for religious belief but hadn’t replaced it with anything substantial.
The Klan emerged in response to the vacuum. It was a deeply racist and nativist reaction to the demographic transformations of American life. It was also a militant reassertion of the Bible and Protestant theology as the legitimate anchors of meaning and authority. That agenda manifested in many ways, but especially in the Klan’s enthusiasm for Bible reading and religious education in public schools. The Klan, as historian Thomas Pegram writes in One Hundred Percent American, “packed galleries in statehouses … in support of laws to expand the use of the Bible as an educational aid. And where state laws failed to pass, Klansmen pressure local school boards into adopting daily readings or launched political coalitions to elect new school boards that would implement the classroom use of scripture.”
The modern Christian Right, as it organized into a political force in the late 1970s and 80s, solved the problem of the lack of Bible reading in public schools by creating a separate sphere of private Christian institutions. Over the past decade, in particular, evangelicals have also turned to homeschooling to control education. But the problem of secular schools has always haunted them and remained a priority. The public schools’ commitment to diversity and neutrality in religious matters means that a majority of children aren’t being indoctrinated in the one truth faith, which translates into a mounting moral crisis. The genius of Trump’s campaign slogan was that it spoke to both the disruptions of the globalizing economy and, maybe even more potently, to the sense of looming moral catastrophe that evangelicals feel. To make America great again means, bluntly, to make it Christian again. And Christianizing the schools is what the push for privatization is about, which is why Pence and Indiana have been at the forefront of it.
In the 2015-16 school year, more than 32,000 students in Indiana—about 3 percent statewide—attended a private school with the assistance of state “scholarships,” at a cost of more than $131 million to taxpayers. The program began in 2011, two years before Pence took office. But, under him, it became one of the largest voucher programs in the nation. The program was originally sold as a way to save money, but its expansion has become a drain on the state budget, siphoning money from public education. Last year, its unfunded deficit was $53 million. Overall, the state spent more than $131 million on vouchers.
Nearly all of the schools that benefit from the program have a religious mission. And though they receive indirect financial support through it, the government is barred from regulating their curriculums. Some of them use books by Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College, dominant players in fundamentalist Christian textbook publishing. Needless to say, many of the schools teach creationism.
Indiana’s devolution of education to private, religious institutions under Pence, in other words, is a fulfillment of the Klan’s obsession with getting scripture into schools, and into curriculums, at taxpayers’ expense, but without the burden of accountability to democratic oversight or educational standards. With Pence as vice president and an aggressive advocate for school privatization heading the Department of Education—Betsy DeVos—there is every reason to expect that the Trump administration will try to extend Indiana’s model to the nation.
The bigger-picture truth is that what has driven Trumpism all along, as with the Klan, is a crusade for one nation under a Christian God and the fiery cross, purified of foreign influences and restored to the racial and religious homogeneity of a romanticized era. Put another way: The Trump administration has initiated the latest battle in a long-running war over the essence of the nation’s “greatness.”
In Indiana, a century ago, the same battle flared over the same issues, as Christian Klansmen sought to take back their state, and their nation, by dramatically asserting the power of the white majority and reasserting the moral authority of Protestantism and the Bible. The spiritual descendants of those Klansmen are the base for Trump, who cares little about religious doctrine but gladly appoints people to carry out evangelicals’ mission in exchange for their votes. In this context, it makes sense that the new president tapped both Pence and, as an adviser, Steve Bannon—a man who seems obsessed with the decay of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” and with fantasies of an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil.
In February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said it was a “stunning thing that a white supremacist, Bannon, would be a permanent member of the National Security Council.” And in one sense, that’s true. It is stunning. Yet the promise of a crusade for a purified Christian America is precisely why evangelicals overwhelmingly gave Trump their vote. If the president succeeds, as he has promised, in gutting the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits religious organizations from making political endorsements and contributions, the seamless merger of conservative Christianity with the state will be complete and an old Klan vision will be realized.
Return of the Mayberry Machiavellis?
Nothing about current U.S. politics is predictable, but moral crusades of the kind that Pence and the GOP are waging under Trump’s banner often contain the seeds of their own undoing. It was a moral scandal, fittingly, that brought down the Indiana Klan. After a spectacular rise in the early 1920s, it fell apart in a single year after its most prominent leader was convicted of rape and murder in 1925. Obsessed with the foreign and immoral influences that it believed were corrupting society, the Indiana Klan was undone by the evil within.
Crusades can also be undone by incompetence, and one sliver of a silver lining is that Pence has a poor record of pushing his ideas and of governing. Though he was an evangelical Christian in a religious, Republican state, he wasn’t very popular with Hoosiers when Trump tapped him to be vice president. His approval ratings over the spring and summer last year hovered in the mid- to upper 40s, putting him near the bottom of the pack among governors nationwide. Part of it was that Indiana simply isn’t doing well by any measure. It placed 47th, behind only Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia, in the 2016 Gallup-Healthways “State of American Well-Being” report, which ranks states based on metrics that include the social, financial and physical health of their populations. Pence’s reputation also suffered because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Pushback from the state’s business community, which feared for Indiana’s reputation, especially after several companies threatened to boycott the state, forced Pence to sign an amended version of the bill that guaranteed the rights of LGBT people.
The RFRA fiasco followed a pattern. When Pence struggled with the tension between his principles and political realities, he flailed, until forced to face the truth and cave. But the negative effects rippled out, and others suffered the consequences and cleaned up the mess. In the case of RFRA, after Pence signed the amended version of the bill, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation hired a public-relations firm to repair the damage. Three months after the $750,000 contract was signed, it was canceled for vague reasons. But IEDC had already paid the firm $365,000, with nothing to show for it.
Maybe the best-case scenario under a Trump presidency is that it will unfold as a series of RFRAs: Pence’s and Trump’s agenda will galvanize and focus the energy of the opposition, and undermine the administration’s efforts. Given Pence’s history of overreach and Trump’s reckless and rudderless impulses, and Bannon’s lunatic, nationalist fantasies, it wouldn’t be surprising if their administration meets a similar fate, and the extremism of their agenda creates the seeds of its undoing. As the Bible, itself, warns: Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.
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Theo Anderson, an In These Times writing fellow, has contributed to the magazine since 2010. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7 and contact him at email@example.com.