As he sat beside the leader of a government that committed suspected genocide and jailed journalists who dared investigate the massacre, Mike Pence did something remarkable. Rather than speaking in Trumpian terms of narrow American interests, he employed the seemingly bygone, more universalist language of American values.
With the cameras rolling, the U.S. vice president told Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi this week during a summit in Singapore that there was no “excuse” for the Myanmar military’s violent persecution of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. He reminded her that the United States places a “premium” on democratic institutions like “a free and independent press.”
It was a stirring performance. But then one recalled the Trump administration’s muted response to the plight of the Rohingya, the president’s own relative silence on the matter, and the fact that back in the United States, he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people” who peddle “fake news.” The cumulative effect was that Pence didn’t come across as a man bearing a stern warning from the White House. He appeared, instead, to be a true believer in a message all his own.
The president and his top advisers have tended to selectively invoke traditional U.S. values like democracy and human rights as a cudgel against adversaries such as China, Cuba, and Iran, and to otherwise downplay them in carrying out their “America first” agenda. But Pence, along with outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, has emerged as a minority voice in the administration for a values-driven approach to foreign policy. It’s a conviction that seems to arise at least in part from Pence’s evangelical Christian faith. And it doesn’t include values that many Christian conservatives oppose, like gay or reproductive rights.
If Trump consistently champions any value, it’s that of adhering exclusively to national interests. The vice president, by contrast, often describes his country’s overriding interest in the world as defending and advancing its values, which he has associated with Christian teachings about serving as a beacon to a troubled world, embracing God-given religious liberty, and recognizing persecution as a central component of faith.
Pence subscribes to the notion, which the Puritans borrowed from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, of the United States as a divinely favored “shining city on a hill.” As an Indiana congressman and governor, he stressed the country’s unique role in the world as a “beacon of freedom.”
Long before he was getting ahead of other Trump-administration officials in condemning the apparent murder of a journalist by the Saudi state as an affront to the “free world,” Pence was co-founding a congressional caucus to promote press freedom around the world. (Prior to entering Congress in 2001, he worked for years as a conservative talk-radio host.)
Well before he was denouncing the repressive rule of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, then-Congressman Pence was lambasting Barack Obama for “warmly greeting” the “virulent anti-American socialist dictator” of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. (Imagine what Congressman Pence might say about his current boss falling “in love” with the virulently anti-American dictator of North Korea.)
Whereas Trump stopped talking about Kim Jong Un’s brutality when he started talks with the North Korean leader about giving up his nuclear weapons, Pence has persisted in calling out the Kim regime for persecuting Christians and subjecting the North Korean people to “unparalleled privation and cruelty.”
And more so than other Trump advisers, Pence has emphasized that the current confrontation between China and the United States is as much about clashing values as it is about the balance of trade or relative military might. In an October address on the administration’s China policy, the vice president expressed alarm about the Chinese government’s sprawling surveillance and censorship apparatus, “Orwellian” social-credit system, and ruthless crackdown on its Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim minorities.
“As history attests, a country that oppresses its own people rarely stops there. Beijing also aims to extend its reach across the wider world,” Pence warned.
The vice president has explicitly linked these positions to his theological beliefs. He’s noted, for example, that religious freedom “is endowed not by government, but by our Creator” and is therefore the right of “all people so endowed” rather than some special American inheritance. And he’s stated that the persecution of Christians anywhere in the world bears witness to the truth of the Gospel, pointing to the biblical passage that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
But as a result, Pence’s conception of American values is largely focused on religious freedom, particularly the freedom of Christians, and dismissive of some other liberties. For instance, as a congressman, Pence opposed a foreign-relations bill on the grounds that it promoted “a set of values,” such as “abortion rights overseas” and “changes in laws regarding homosexuality around the world,” that “are at odds with the majority of the American people” and thus don’t qualify as “universally recognized human rights.” As vice president, he endorsed Trump’s restoration of a policy prohibiting U.S. foreign assistance to organizations that advocate for abortion rights or offer abortion counseling and related services.
As Pence tells it, free worship is the key to a freer and safer world. “When religious liberty is denied or destroyed, we know that other freedoms—freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and even democratic institutions themselves—are imperiled,” he declared during a religious-freedom summit the administration organized in July. “Those nations that reject religious freedom breed radicalism and resentment in their citizens. They sow the seeds of violence within their borders—violence that often spills over into their neighbors and across the world.”
And Pence argues that his own flock is more endangered than any other religion. This has prompted the vice president to help direct tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Christians and other minorities in Iraq, and to use the term genocide in describing ISIS’s assault on Christians (he did not mention that word when discussing the fate of the Rohingya with Suu Kyi). “Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ,” Pence has asserted.
“After this great nation secured our independence, the American Founders enshrined religious freedom as the first freedom in the Constitution of the United States,” Pence noted in the July speech.
Then he quoted George Washington’s letter to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island. U.S. policy was “worthy of imitation,” the first president had observed, because the U.S. government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”