Did Pence Decline to Wear a Mask Because He’s a ‘Muscular Christian’?

VP Mike Pence is Mike Pence. Image: White House

I just checked. Turns out I’ve never focused on Mike Pence. That might be due to his being a non-entity. Like most people, I don’t care enough about the vice president to bother forming an opinion about him. Circumstances, however, have forced me to.

Pence visited Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic Tuesday. He wasn’t wearing a mask.

Wearing a mask is, um, the smart thing to do in the thick of a pandemic that has, as of Tuesday, killed more Americans over a month and a half than all who died fighting in Vietnam over 19 years. It’s the smart thing to do in a health clinic whose patients are recovering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. It’s the smart thing to do for the official second-in-line to the most powerful office in the land.

Pence is no dummy. What gives?

Some have speculated he doesn’t believe he needs one. As a twice-born conservative Christian, he likely believes faith in Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior literally immunizes him against the coronavirus. Given that Pence never lets you forget his devotion to the unerring Word of God, this would seem a good theory.

Such speculation is given greater credence by the theory of “muscular Christianity” that’s been developed over two decades. After the Cold War ended, evangelicals were open to “soft patriarchy,” according to historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez. But after Sept. 11, 2001, “a more militant Christian masculinity returned with a vengeance,” writes Du Mez. “From hundreds of books that collectively sold millions of copies, evangelicals were told that men were called to be warriors and that masculine aggression was God’s gift to humanity.”

By the time of the 2016 election, according to Du Mez, white evangelical Christians had been reveling in the idea of an ass-kicking Christ for years. The Rev. Robert Jeffress said he wanted for president “the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role.” In Donald Trump, white evangelicals found what they were looking for. So Mike Pence didn’t wear a mask Tuesday for three reasons. One, he’s a Christian. Two, he’s a man. Three, he’s a Christian man. And real Christian men don’t need no stinking masks.

I mean, these are interesting theories. But I think they give too much credit to the vice president and white evangelical Christian leaders unwavering in support of a lying, thieving, philandering sadist who also happens to be the president. More importantly, they implicitly accept the legitimacy of American evangelism’s definition of manhood.

If Pence were really a manly Christian unafraid of catching the coronavirus among people who were recovering from it, why didn’t he just say that? Sure, he would have courted controversy, but so what? The president’s supporters would have loved it.

Instead, Pence lied. He said he was following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Actually, the CDC’s guidelines, according to NPR, recommend “wearing cloth face masks in public to help prevent transmitting the virus to others.”

Pence lied in another way. He said he is tested every day to make sure he isn’t infected. “And since I don’t have the coronavirus,” the vice president said, “I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say ‘thank you.’” Again, Pence is no dummy. He understands the difference between being uninfected and being immune to future infection. He is one, but not the other. Why did he lie?

I suspect it’s because the president refuses to wear a mask. If the president does something, the vice president does it too, because this vice president is pretty much the opposite of manly—never mind manly Christian. Deciding on his own how to think, how to talk, or how to even walk is too risky for a man who’s conformist to his core.

Mike Pence conforms so much to the president that he’s even starting to resemble him. I can’t be alone in noticing the manner in which he toured the Mayo Clinic Tuesday—leaning forward slightly, arms dangling, appearing to tiptoe, as if he shared Trump’s heft and girth. He’s less Iron Vice President than Mighty Morphin Power Pence.

Manly Christians like to brag about being self-reliant. All they need is Jesus, after all. But self-reliance takes courage. It takes standing up to power when necessary, as Jesus did. “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson [all emphases mine]. “He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

Pence isn’t alone. The Christians who triumph in the fact that “the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what” is the president are the same ones wailing about unfair persecution in American modernity. They complain with breathtaking consistency; which might be admirable if consistency, as Emerson also said, weren’t “the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”