DES MOINES, Iowa — Former Vice President Mike Pence has long been a standard bearer for the evangelical Christian movement in American politics.
On Friday, before a gathering of hundreds of Christian faithful at the 12th Annual Family Leadership Summit in downtown Des Moines, it felt, to some degree, that the GOP candidate for president had lost a good portion of that faithful base.
Pence was among several contenders in a crowded Republican presidential primary field to be questioned — some say interrogated — by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Shortly after Pence asked the audience to give the long-time conservative journalist a round of applause and the two combatants joked about being unemployed, Carlson hit the former vice president with a question he’s had to answer many times since January 6, 2021.
“What was that? Do you think that was an insurrection?” asked Carlson, a sharp critic of the left-led narrative that the sometimes violent protests at the U.S. Capitol amid the certification of the 2020 presidential election was some kind of coup attempt by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
Pence deflected — at first. He thanked Bob Vander Plaats, the politically influential CEO of the Family Leader, organizer of the summit and candidate cattle call. He noted that Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds was, on the same stage, set to sign one of the strictest abortion limits in America into law.
Then, Pence got to it.
“As to that day, all I know for sure is, having lived through it at the Capitol, is that it was a tragic day,” he said. “I’ve never used the word ‘insurrection,’ Tucker, over the last two years. It was a riot that took place at the Capitol that day.”
He said it should never have happened, and he again blamed his former running mate — who critics accuse of fomenting the disorder — for putting the former vice president’s life and the lives of his family at risk. He said history will judge Trump.
“But I do believe a day of tragedy became a triumph of freedom. And I’ll always believe, by God’s grace, I did my duty that day under the Constitution of the United States of America,” Pence said to a smattering of applause.
The questions from Carlson grew more direct, more pressing. The two sparred over Pence’s stance on the U.S., serving as an arsenal for Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian invasion.
Things grew particularly intense when Carlson asked Pence how he could support a Ukraine government that is arresting Christian faith leaders and raiding convents for criticizing the government.
Pence said he raised the issue with a leader of the Orthodox Church in Kyiv on a recent trip to Ukraine. He was assured the Zelensky government was respecting religious liberty, even as small elements of the Russian Orthodox were being used to advance the Russian cause. He said other than the sanctity of life, there is nothing he prioritizes more than religious liberty at home and championing it abroad.
“I’m confused. On this question it’s very clear, that the Zelensky government has arrested priests for having views they disagree with. That’s not consistent with religious liberty. It’s an attack on it, and we’re funding it. And I was just wondering how … I don’t mean to be disrespectful at all, but I sincerely wonder how a Christian leader could support the arrest of Christians for having different views.”
Pence explained that he’s been to Ukraine twice and has seen the atrocities occurring on the ground in war-torn Ukraine. He said what he witnessed wasn’t just war, “it was evil.”
“I believe it is in the interest of the United States of America to continue to give the Ukrainian military the resources they need to repel the Russian invasion and restore the sovereignty of Ukraine,” the former vice president said. He was booed by some in the main ballroom audience.
Carlson said he could’t let the question on Christian persecution slide. He demanded an answer.
“You won’t accept my answer,” Pence interrupted. “I just told you that I asked a religious leader in Kiev what was happening. You asked me if I raised the issue and I did.”
“I would think you would have greater concern for religious liberty in Ukraine … You spoke to one person whose on one side of it…” Carlson fired back to ringing applause.
It’s not the first time the upper-tier Republican candidate for president had been booed on the campaign trail. He faced similar treatment at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in his own home state of Indiana earlier this year.
But Pence has long had a special relationship with evangelical Christians. Some seem to have left him, at least at this key Iowa political event before a powerful Christian conservative organization.
Asked by The Star News Network if he believes the support from the religious right that he has enjoyed and built over many years in politics is eroding, Pence in part blamed the rhetoric of Trump and other Republican presidential candidates who have criticized growing U.S. involvement in Ukraine. He said disastrous Biden foreign policy also has “undermined the willingness of some conservative Americans, including some conservative Christians, who otherwise stand behind our role as the leader of the free world.”
“I believe we can secure our border, revive our economy, defend our liberties, strengthen our military and sill be the leader of the free world,” Pence said. “Anybody who thinks we can’t do both of those things has a petty small view of the greatest nation on earth.”
Next up on the hot seat with Carlson Friday afternoon:
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Mike Pence and Tucker Carlson” by Mike Pence.