Karen Pence, LGBTQ discrimination and the Christian right's embrace of victimhood

Willfully ignorant about the harmful cultural messaging of her actions, Pence is the perfect symbol of “good,” Christian, white America.
Image: Karen Pence
Karen Pence speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Vice President's residence, the Naval Observatory, in Washington on Sept. 10, 2018.Carolyn Kaster / AP file
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By Marcie Bianco

Mother is heading back to school — haven’t you heard?

And it’s the latest in the fight for America’s soul.

Karen Pence, currently the second lady of the United States, is returning to Immanuel Christian School, a private K-8 elementary school that is a part of the Immanuel Bible Church, to teach art part-time to students.

Civil rights and LGBTQ activists, including most recently Lady Gaga, criticized the SLOTUS’s new position because the school explicitly “refuse[s] admission” to students who do not live according to the “biblical lifestyle” — which means no rough-and-tumble homosexual or bisexual activity. Likewise, the school discriminates against job applicants who do not “live a life of moral purity;” disqualifying conduct includes everything from “lesbian sexual activity” to "transgender identity” to “heterosexual activity outside of marriage.”

The school discriminates against job applicants who do not “live a life of moral purity;” disqualifying conduct includes everything from “lesbian sexual activity” to "transgender identity.”

“It’s disturbing Second Lady Karen Pence would put her stamp of approval on an institution that actively targets LGBTQ students at one of the places where they should feel the safest,” Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement through the organization.

Legally, Immanual Christian School can discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Virginia, in addition to 38 other states, does not prohibit private workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

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The ethics of such a move are a different matter. Still, so-called religious freedom advocates have moved quickly to leverage the backlash, portraying criticism as yet another instance of liberal overreach.

Increasingly, this is the desperate defense of those who find themselves on the wrong side of history — as well as societal and legal norms. While LGBTQ individuals still suffer from hate crimes (especially trans Americans) and prejudice, the majority of Americans have no problem with gay marriage or other civil and legal rights. Realizing this, one pocket of America is now attempting to hide its own historical privilege in the language of the oppressed.

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“But I have to tell you, to see major news organizations attacking Christian education, is deeply offensive to us,” Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with Eternal World Television. “The freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution prohibits a religious test for holding a public office and so we’ll let the other critics roll off our back, but this criticism of Christian education in America should stop.”

The ground lines of the cultural battle have been set — and they’re in favor of the bigots.

Or, as David French wrote at the National Review: “No one is forced to attend the church. No one is forced to attend the school. It’s a voluntary association that is protected by the First Amendment and rooted in the faith that guides the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

French is correct, actually. Despite having a lifestyle at least partially funded by the American taxpayer, Karen Pence has the freedom to believe in her evangelical Christian faith; she has the freedom to work at a school that espouses this faith — a faith constructed by a morality that is fundamentally patriarchal, sexist and homophobic. And her freedom to do so is indeed protected by the First Amendment.

The ground lines of the cultural battle have been set — and they’re in favor of the bigots, who have strategically positioned themselves as the victims of an attack on their religious freedom.

Through a manipulation of First Amendment language, freedom of religion currently serves as code for bigots to justify not only their discriminatory beliefs but the continuation of verbal and physical violence against minority communities. Even though they project the language of the snowflake at civil rights advocates and liberal-leaning citizens, it is they who cry “victim” when their moral values are exposed as promoting hate and violence. Using a quite simple two-pronged logic, they circumvent accountability by projecting blame onto those people who they discriminate against while obfuscating the bigotry of their own beliefs.

Regarding the latter, this is most apparent in the ridiculous language of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” a notorious Christian idiom, which egregiously severs the connection between action and identity. And as I have written elsewhere, sexual identity is a construction that is fundamentally based in action, in the personal history of one’s sexual actions and behaviors.

And the refusal to hold oneself accountable is a strategy for dominance that unethically burdens, and potentially harms, others. A more critical interrogation of historical values — here, religious values steeped in misogyny and homophobia — gets crushed by the moral panic of Karen Pence’s defenders, who are frothing at the mouth to evangelize the rightness of America’s “culture wars.”

Here, they even have an unexpected ally in people who perceive Pence’s return to the workplace as an equal rights issue. At the Washington Post, opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg went to far as to herald this return as a “feminist victory” because Pence is “preserving [her] professional independence.”

However, a woman entering the workforce is not a feminist victory if the work performed is in the service of bigotry and discrimination. Remember, you cannot divorce the act from the identity. This equation is akin to the mislabeling of white suffragists as feminists. White women who fought for other white women to have the vote, and aligned themselves with racist patriarchs in order to finance their constitutional battle for the 19th Amendment, were not feminists.

Karen Pence is not, contrary to what her defenders say, a victim. Willfully ignorant about the harmful cultural messaging of her actions, and complicit with oppressive systems built on bigoted beliefs, she is the unimpeachable mother — white and heterosexual — who, actually, has always been the idol of “good,” Christian, white America. Her defenders are knights in white robes who shout “freedom!” as they cut down their enemy.

This is American history, and, it seems, mother will continue to teach it.