Over the last few days, a media firestorm has broken out over the fact that Karen Pence, wife of the vice president of the United States, will return to teach art on a part-time basis at a private Christian school. Immanuel Christian School, like many other private institutions, requires its staff members to sign a code of conduct and statement of beliefs. Within Immanuel Christian School’s statement of beliefs, one will find the ancient and biblical understanding of marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive covenant union as delineated in Scripture.”
In terms of the code of conduct, Immanuel Christian expects its staff members and students to “live a personal life of moral purity.” The governing document goes on to define certain aspects of “moral misconduct” as “heterosexual activity outside of marriage (e.g., premarital sex, cohabitation, extramarital sex), homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female, sexual harassment, use or viewing of pornographic material or websites, and sexual abuse or improprieties toward minors as defined by Scripture and federal or state law.”
Most media outlets that have covered this news, even those who disagree strongly with the positions of the school, have been fairly understanding of a private school’s prerogative to maintain standards for its staff and students. The heartache for these journalists can be found in the “Second Lady of the United States” choosing to work at a school with such convictions, and thus, according to some, “sending a deeply hurtful message to LGBTQ youth and those who support them by acquiescing to, and upholding, deeply and directly discriminatory policies as a member of the school’s faculty.”
Christian convictions and the public square
This controversy provokes the question: Is a Christian allowed to maintain and live according to their convictions in the public square? Here are a few thoughts that we must consider:
First, Karen Pence is the wife of an elected official, but not the elected official herself. Even if Karen Pence was an elected official, though, the argument that someone with such a public role in the U.S. should not associate with institutions that hold potentially controversial beliefs principally violates the no religious test clause of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever role she plays or doesn’t play as the “Second Lady of the United States” is up to her and her husband. Yet, Mrs. Pence’s association with Immanuel Christian School should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention. Karen Pence previously taught art at Immanuel Christian School for 12 years before her current role. It is not as if she deceived someone about her beliefs and convictions. The Pence family has held these Christian convictions publicly for decades, which brings us to the second point worth noting in this controversy.
A second observation worth noting concerns how scandalized and outraged many media outlets seemed to be by Mrs. Pence’s commitment to historic, Christian sexual ethics. As other conservative thinkers have mentioned elsewhere, the media is surprised that the Second Lady, a Christian, is teaching at an institution that holds to orthodox Christian beliefs. Immanuel Christian School has the audacity to be Christian.
Sadly, the scandal surrounding such convictions is not limited to Mrs. Pence. In recent days, Sens. Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris have all but applied a religious test to the nomination of Brian Buescher to the federal judiciary. They have raised questions and objections to his service on account of his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a historically Catholic organization that also happens, to the surprise of some, to be Catholic. And last year, Russ Vought, a nominee for The Office of Management and Budget, was criticized by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for holding beliefs that are consistent with Christian doctrine.
One cannot help but wonder if those who oppose public leaders with Christian convictions do so in part because they cannot imagine a religious person in the U.S. being anything other than nominal. It now appears that decades of nominal, convictionless, western Christianity has paved the way for progressives to argue that there is no place for convictional religion in the public square. For decades, many professing Christians have argued publicly for the need to downplay or even abandon doctrinal convictions, thinking that such an approach would earn favor in the public square. But many progressives are not merely content with expanding rights for the LGBT community; they want Christian communities to abandon sexual ethics entirely or be shamed out of public life.
The free exercise of religious liberty
Surrender and capitulation, however, are not necessary. The First Amendment of the United States grants all religious people the right to live out their faith. They have not simply been granted the right of conscience. They have been granted the right of free exercise. Furthermore, this right, while enshrined in the First Amendment, does not originate from mankind. Religious liberty is not fundamentally an artifact of the Enlightenment. Religious liberty is deeply rooted in humanity’s relationship with God. God has made man and woman in his image, and they are supremely accountable to him as his creatures. When the government or others attempt to direct or guide the religious practices of God’s creatures, they are attempting to subvert the Lordship of Christ.
At times, people will use fear, slander, lies, shame, and intimidation to drive the Christian’s convictions back into the shadows. The temptation is to respond with fear, slander, lies, and shame of our own, but that is not the way of Christ. Instead, Christians must remember who they are ultimately accountable to and why they are here on this earth. Christ left his disciples on the earth to point others to “the kindness and severity of God “(Rom. 11:22). And at times, these faithful disciples will be “reviled and persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:11) because, like the prophets of old, they dared to remind people that they were sinners in need of God’s mercy. No amount of hedging or nuance will ever take away the offense of the cross of Christ.
The Christian faith was never intended to be “normal” in this world. It was intended to disrupt “normal.” The gospel, with its clear call to repent and believe in Christ, was and is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). So, we do not lose heart when people disagree vehemently with our religious convictions and tell us to leave our Christianity at home. Instead, we remember that we are strangers in this world. We are sojourners who are looking forward to “a better and abiding possession” (Heb. 10:34) that is soon to be revealed when our Savior appears (Col. 3:1-4). May we be faithful witnesses to Christ until the very end, no matter what it costs us.