Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos and the Klan’s Long Shadow

The extremism of their agenda contains the seeds of its undoing.

Theo Anderson

For Pence and the evangelicals he represents, as with the Klan of a century ago, politics is 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 legacy he leaves. (Photo by Drew Angerer/ Getty Images)

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.

"The promise of a crusade for a purified Christian America is precisely why evangelicals overwhelmingly gave Trump their vote."

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.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. 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.
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