BALTIMORE (RNS) — Vice President Mike Pence closed out his speech before the Republican National Convention on Wednesday evening (Aug. 26) with a mashup of Bible references, into which he inserted American symbols and ideals.
Speaking before a crowd at Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, Pence, a self-described “born-again, evangelical Catholic” known for infusing his political rhetoric with religious language, sprinkled his address with references to God and prayer.
But Pence, who accepted his party’s nomination for vice president during the speech, sparked outcry in some Christian circles as he closed out his remarks when he combined at least two Bible verses — and replaced references to Jesus with patriotic imagery.
Let Religion News Service explain.
So What Did Pence Say?
Here’s the full quote from Pence’s speech that has people talking:
“Let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom — and that means freedom always wins.”
That Seems Vaguely Familiar
That may be because Pence references two different Bible verses in his remarks.
One is 2 Corinthians 3:17, which according to the New International Version translation reads, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
The other is Hebrews 12:1-2, the version of which he quoted most closely resembling the translation in the Berean Study Bible, with some notable changes.
That passage reads:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
What Did He Change?
First, Pence substituted “Old Glory” for “Jesus.” He took a similar approach in the next line, inserting an additional line: “Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire,” before returning to the biblical text.
He also described Jesus (or Old Glory, as the case may be) as “the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom,” adding the words “and freedom,” which do not appear in the Hebrews passage.
The inserted lines appeared to be references to the context Pence chose for his speech: The vice president delivered his address from Fort McHenry, where an 1814 battle inspired the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and he was speaking on the third night of the RNC, when the theme was “Land of Heroes.”
Why Are People Upset about It?
Some of President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisers lauded the speech, such as Texas Pastor Jack Graham, who tweeted: “We can bend our knee to Christ in faith and stand for our flag in freedom. Thank you (Vice President Pence).”
But many others took issue with his remarks, noting that Pence’s fusion of God and country appears to be a nod toward Christian nationalism, which asserts the United States is — or should be — a Christian nation. Political analysts say the idea has been invoked repeatedly by Trump during his 2016 campaign for president and throughout his first term, and has resonated with many conservative Christians who make up his base. It’s also an idea much older than this presidency: Mashups of religion and national identity have cropped up throughout U.S. history, although experts argue that it has emerged with particular fervor under Trump.
Many other Christians and people of faith, however, strongly oppose Christian nationalism. In 2019, a group of Christians published a letter condemning Christian nationalism and calling it a “persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy.”
“As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy,” the letter read.
A number of Christian leaders publicly criticized Pence’s replacement of Jesus with the American flag in his speech, describing it as a form of “idolatry” and as blasphemous.
“Glad Pence seems to know Scripture; grieved & appalled he’d believe substituting ‘Old Glory’ for ‘Jesus’ wasn’t blasphemous and equating the freedom Paul was referring to with civil liberties,” tweeted Greg Jao, senior assistant to the president of InterVarsity, an evangelical Christian organization.
“This is Babylon. This is idolatry,” tweeted Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla/Staff