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Leonard Pitts: VP Pence inadvertently right in Liberty speech

By Leonard Pitts

In a commencement address Saturday at Liberty University, the Christian evangelical college in Virginia, the vice president warned graduates that they should expect to be “shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible.”

“As you go about your daily life,” he said, “just be ready because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith, you’re going to be asked to endorse them.”

And yes, an argument can be made that this was sound advice, albeit not in the way Pence intended it to be.

Take, for instance, Jesus’ admonition that “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Anyone who supports the idea of giving to the poor should expect to be “shunned or ridiculed” by the likes of Mitt Romney, who said 47 percent of us don’t want to work, former South Carolina lieutenant governor and fired CNN pundit Andre Bauer, who said the poor are like stray animals begging at the back door for food, and Pence himself who, as a congressman, voted against increased funding for affordable housing.

Or take this exhortation from the book of Hebrews: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Follow that command and you will be “shunned or ridiculed” by people like Donald Trump, who has caged “strangers,” taken their children from them, condoned violence against them and called them “animals.” You will also run afoul of Pence who, as governor of Indiana, tried to block Syrian refugees from that state.

But again, when Pence warned the graduates about being derided for their beliefs he obviously had neither the poor nor the outcast in mind. No, as everyone who heard him surely understood, what he was tacitly telling them is that they should expect to be condemned for being hostile toward the LGBTQ community and blaming it on God. That’s what faith devolves to for so many these days: a requirement to oppose gay rights.

No surprise. As modeled on the political stage, religion seldom has much to do with the revolutionary dictates of the Christian Bible and everything to do with giving aid, comfort and theological cover to small, mean and exclusionary impulses.

In warning them that they will be “shunned or ridiculed,” what Pence offered those students was a faith hunkered down within itself, a victim’s faith, a whiny, put-upon, self-pitying faith disconnected from a world grown too complex and frightening to engage. He offered them faith as foxhole.

It is faith that should embarrass the faithful.

A nation where the stranger is demonized and the poor exploited, a nation where justice is obstructed in plain sight and public lies hammer public confidence in public institutions, a nation of nonstop emergency and commonplace crisis, a nation that has retreated from the high ground of ennobling ideals and sacred creeds, is a nation with far more to worry about than whether men have sex with men.

And a nation facing all those challenges would seem to be a nation where there is plenty of work for the faithful — indeed, for all people of conscience — to do. Such a nation stands in dire need of the energy and inventiveness of the rising generation. This critical juncture is a time for all hands on deck. This is not a time for some of us to hunker in foxholes.

It’s too bad the vice president didn’t say something like that to the graduates. He would have been right to do so.

And not just inadvertently.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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