Vice President Mike Pence warned graduates of an evangelical university over the weekend that they will face persecution for holding “traditional Christian beliefs” once they leave campus.
During a commencement speech at Virginia’s Liberty University on Saturday, the vice president encouraged the Class of 2019 to “be ready” to face opposition because they live in a time when “it’s become acceptable and even fashionable to ridicule and even discriminate against people of faith.”
“You know, throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian. It didn’t even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible,” Pence told the nearly 21,000 graduates. “But things are different now. Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs.”
“You’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture,” he added.
Watch Pence deliver the commencement address at Liberty University below.
Pence cited reports from the United States and United Kingdom governments that suggest Christians are the world’s most persecuted group. He also mentioned recent attacks against houses of worship ― including the deadly attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka and on three historically black churches in Louisiana, as well as those on Jewish synagogues in Pennsylvania and California and mosques in New Zealand.
Pence said the pushback conservative American Christians have faced for their positions on social issues was further proof that they are being persecuted for their faith.
He referred to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious order that challenged the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, and to Georgia’s “heartbeat bill,” which was signed into law on Tuesday. Some production companies have pledged not to film in the state in response to the law, which effectively bans abortion after six weeks. Pence said the boycott was the work of “a bevy of Hollywood liberals.”
He also pointed to the backlash faced by his wife, Karen Pence, after HuffPost reported she was working at an evangelical school that bans LGBTQ employees and students.
“We faced harsh attacks by the media and the secular Left,” the vice president said. “These attacks on Christian education are un-American.”
Liberty University is a private evangelical university in Lynchburg with a long history of political involvement. It was founded by Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister who helped seal evangelicals’ ties to the Republican Party in the 1980s. His son, Jerry Falwell Jr., is a close ally and defender of President Donald Trump. Trump has paid several visits to Liberty University, and he gave the first commencement address of his presidency there in 2017.
“I’m proud to report our administration has already taken decisive action to protect religious liberty, and we’ll continue to do just that,” Pence said. “And I promise you: We will always stand up for the right of Americans to live, to learn, and to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience.”
Online reactions to the vice president’s speech illustrated how deeply divided American Christians are about religious liberty and civil rights. Progressive Christians believe their conservative co-religionists are using religious beliefs as a sword to cut down the civil rights of minority groups. On the other hand, conservative Christians tend to think movements supporting LGBTQ equality or abortion rights are blatant attacks on their ability to practice conservative beliefs in the public square.
As people who believe in the inerrancy of scripture, evangelicals take seriously the Bible’s warnings that Jesus’ followers will be oppressed for their religious beliefs. Even though Christians in America have considerable political and social clout, some evangelicals are concerned about the group’s demographic decline. When they receive pushback on culture war issues, some see themselves as being part of that long line of Christians throughout history who have suffered for their faith.
Being “in but not of the world” has been a central theme in Christianity since its beginnings, said R. Marie Griffith, a religion scholar at the Washington University in St. Louis.
“Christians have frequently been taught that they must stand firm against the evil corruption of the world and that this will not be a popular stand,” Griffith told HuffPost in an email. “It’s easy to see how that teaching can create a sense that persecution is necessary, even welcome, because it means that one is on the side of God rather than the wicked world.”
Fellow evangelicals praised Pence’s speech, and agreed that American evangelicals are being “persecuted.”
“The vice president was quoting the words of Jesus, quoting scriptures,” Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham and a longtime Trump supporter, said on “Fox & Friends,” referring to a scripture passage in which Jesus tells his disciples they will be persecuted for their beliefs.
“That was a great message to these students, to be ready, be prepared,” Graham added.
Eugene Scott, a Washington Post reporter who covers identity politics, wrote that Pence mainly means conservative, white, Trump-supporting evangelicals when he talks about “Christians.” He said Pence’s rhetoric about persecution could perpetuate the “victim mentality” in America’s culture wars.
“Pence’s characterization of the criticism directed toward conservative Christians focused only on how it makes people like him feel. It failed to address the validity of the pushback or even acknowledge that the criticism sometimes comes from other Christians,” Scott wrote in the Post.
Other commentators from Christian backgrounds indicated the commencement speech was further proof of the so-called evangelical persecution complex.
Griffith said it’s been “very politically expedient” for Trump to harness this “persecution mentality.”
“It seems that some opportunistic leaders see great political value in convincing the masses that they are persecuted and must fight against the world,” she said.
This article has been updated with comment from R. Marie Griffith.