Republican National Convention speakers have spent much of their platform time this week reaching out to solidify and expand their support among people of faith and evangelicals in particular, but Vice President Mike Pence's Wednesday night speech that mixed Scripture and patriotism went over the top for some prominent leaders.
At the end of his speech, the vice president alluded to Hebrews 12:1-2, in which the author calls on believers to "run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith", and 2 Corinthians 3:17 where the Apostle Paul writes "the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."
Pence, however, substituted the flag for Jesus, calling on Americans to support a second Trump term by saying, "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 our freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins."
A Few Faith Leaders Upset Over What Pence Said
That blending of the Bible and patriotic imagery crossed a line for some faith leaders, including Dr. Karen Swallow Prior at the Southern Baptists' Southeastern Seminary and Dr. Ed Stetzer at Wheaton College.
Prior condemned the wording on Thursday and said the vice president should repent. "Vice President Pence came dangerously close to blasphemy by literally replacing Christ with the American flag in this speech. We cannot re-write God's word," she said. "I pray Mr. Pence repents and seeks forgiveness--and seeks it through Christ, not a flag."
Stetzer called Pence's biblical references disconcerting. "I love Jesus and I love my country," he said. "But when you confuse and conflate the two you end up with something that hurts both. Often when you mix politics and religion you get politics."
Greg Jao, a top leader at InterVarsity USA wrote on his personal Twitter page that he was "grieved and appalled" by Pence's substitution of Old Glory for Jesus.
Defense for Pence's Use of Scripture
The vice president's chief of staff, Marc Short, and the president's key faith advisors were quick to defend him Thursday, calling his imagery appropriate and creative.
Short said, "Invoking 2 Corinthians and Hebrews as an allegory about keeping our eyes fixed on finishing the race set before us is appropriate as Paul was also using an athletic metaphor to remind readers on staying focused on what matters."
Faith advisor Johnnie Moore praised Pence for being a student of Scripture and interspersing verses in his writing. "Pence's speeches are always artfully filled with Biblical references and Biblical allusions," he said. "His most famous quote is, 'I am a Christian first, then a conservative and a Republican - in that order'."
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Long-time Trump supporter, Pastor Robert Jeffress, defended the vice president, saying he was using a rhetorical device to make a point. "Vice President Pence is one of the most committed Christians I've ever known and I can assure you he is not substituting 'Old Glory' for the 'King of Glory, Jesus Christ'," he said.
Another faith advisor, Southern Baptist Pastor Jack Graham, showed support for the vice president by tweeting "we can bend our knee to Christ in faith and stand for our flag in freedom."
Historical Examples of Presidents and Religious Imagery
Baylor historian and evangelical expert Dr. Thomas Kidd noted that previous presidents like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan also mixed patriotism and religious imagery in speeches. In 1961, Kennedy referred to the US as "a city upon a hill" referencing Matthew 5:14. President Ronald Reagan used the metaphor several times as well.
"There's definitely a long tradition among white evangelicals of conflating the Bible and American patriotism," he said, explaining that it began in the 1950s.
Some call it Christian nationalism but Kidd considers that a pejorative term. "It's a habit that people Mike Pence's age and older tend to be most comfortable with," he said. "People who grew up in the Cold War were so used to the idea that America represented liberty but also Christianity in contrast to atheistic Communism."
At the same time, Kidd acknowledged that some evangelicals bristle at such blending. "There's a lot of really traditional evangelicals who are uncomfortable with that kind of talk because they want to keep the focus on the Gospel," he said.
Kidd said the mixing could also alienate Christians in other countries. "You have to think how a Christian from another part of the world would hear it," he said. "The language of patriotism just can't be mixed and matched with the Bible."
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Dr. Ed Stetzer at Wheaton College was attributed to have said, "Often when you mix politics and religion you get religion." Dr. Stetzer provided that quote by mistake and later revised it to what he intended to say: "Often when you mix politics and religion you get politics."