Vice President Mike Pence addressed the graduating class at Liberty University over the weekend.
Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., has been an adamant supporter of Pence, President Donald Trump and their policies.
During his address, Pence warned graduates about what they would face after graduation. He told them to be ready because they would be “shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible.”
By both his voiced and tacit support and actions, this is what he believes.
While the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allow Pence to hold these ideas, they also offer room for alternative positions to his interpretation of Scripture.
By claiming “martyr status” for his beliefs – arguing that his opinions and interpretations are the teachings of the Bible – he is attempting to lay claim that his interpretation of Scripture is somehow canonized and infallible.
My argument is not with the Bible but with Pence’s interpretation of the Bible.
Some evangelicals set themselves up as the sole “Fidei Defensor,” Defender of the Faith.
This notion that evangelicals are the exclusive authority on Scripture leaves no room for other interpretations.
Based upon this mistaken idea, Pence made this claim to Liberty students: “Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs.”
This line of victimization attempts to claim the mantle of orthodox Christianity while ignoring the fallibility of specific doctrines throughout that tradition: white supremacy, slavery, doctrine of discovery, manifest destiny, divine rights of kings, submission of women, anthropocentric universe and infallibility of church leaders.
Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that some of the “loudest voices” opposing his interpretations and applications of Scripture are from within the Christian community.
Those of us who disagree with Pence and his brand of Christianity do not question his relationship with Jesus, but we cannot adhere to his theology of exclusion and discrimination.
Karl Popper introduced a concept in his 1945 publication, “The Open Society, and Its Enemies,” in which he described the paradox of tolerance.
He wrote, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
“We should, therefore, claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant,” he continued. “We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”
Popper’s point is that intolerance must not be tolerated.
By acknowledging this hypocrisy, proponents of toleration must stand against those espousing intolerant theologies and practices.
Therefore, the pressure Pence and other evangelicals feel is opposition to their ideas that perpetuate intolerance.
In the marketplace of ideas, all ideas must be subject to scrutiny and criticism. In the church, part of the Christian tradition has been to evaluate, re-evaluate and change theological conviction over time. Opposition to a narrow interpretation of the Scriptures is part of the church’s history.
From the Jerusalem Conference to the Reformation, the church has evolved throughout her history.
Pence claims that opponents to his brand of Christianity have an argument with the Bible, but our argument is not with the Bible. Our argument is with some evangelicals’ interpretation of that Bible.
Some evangelicals want to remain entrenched in their static interpretation of “tradition” while progressives want to address current issues through the living words of Scripture and practical reason.
Evangelicals cling to their tradition with white knuckles, arguing that others are attempting to pervert Christianity through placing culture over biblical teachings. There is nothing further from the truth.
Those who oppose Pence’s interpretation and application have high regard for Scripture.
In fact, we claim the Bible as our authority in an attempt to use its truths to engage complex issues.
In other words, evangelicals still adhere to the 16th-century Reformation call of “sola scriptura” (Scripture alone), while more progressive thinkers embrace John Wesley’s “quadrilateral” that uses Scripture, tradition, reason and experience for interpretation and application.
The vice president missed a moment to educate graduates about the diverse community they are entering. Instead, Pence maintained his restrictive and divisive theology.
If only he could have set aside his deep distrust of the world and set the students loose within it, inspired by exploration and discovery.
Instead of instilling suspicion, Pence could have challenged and inspired students to open their minds to the Word of God and their hearts to God’s unrestricted love.
Instead of playing the victim, he could have taken the opportunity to point out the varied traditions within the faith and advocated for constructive debate.
Unfortunately, he did not.
Instead, he chose to propagate division and distrust.
For this reason, there will be those of us who continue to denounce this interpretation of the Bible and the tactics that follow.
We will continue to allow the Scriptures to guide our thoughts. We will continue to let love direct our actions. We will still use the minds God gave us to enact this truth within the world. And, we will be intolerant to the intolerant.
Our argument is not with the Bible, but with those that use the Bible as their tool to discriminate against others and cause harm to God’s creations.
We need the emerging generation to embrace diversity and create a new model for productive dialogue.
We need to free them from dogmatic traditions concerned primarily with looking backward as they substitute tradition for the pursuit of truth.
We need for them to be looking forward in order to build a new tomorrow, where every person has value and finds affirmation in community.
That’s the advice the vice president should have given.