Why Is Mike Pence Smil­ing?

Be­cause His God Has a Plan.

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence has been noted for his “close­cropped hel­met of white hair,” his “folksy Mid­west­ern drawl” and the “de­vo­tional gaze” he trains on Pres­i­dent Trump. But his most strik­ing fea­ture is surely his smile.

It’s not re­ally a smile. It’s ac­tu­ally more of a grin. He brought this very grin to the Is­raeli Knes­set in Janaury, where he was feted first by Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and then by op­po­si­tion leader, Isaac Her­zog.

There’s a truth hid­den in that grin that lies at the very dis­tinc­tion be­tween a grin and a smile. A smile be­speaks mirth, whereas a grin sug­gests sat­is­fac­tion (re­call the et­y­mol­ogy of “smile,” from the Old English “to laugh at” and the Latin “to won­der,” whereas “grin” comes from the Old English “to bare the teeth”). While a smile re­flects feel­ings of plea­sure, a grin is the re­sult of thoughts. And not just any thoughts. A grin is the re­sult of self­sat­is­fied thoughts.

Mike Pence’s grin is the grin of a smug man.

Why is Pence so smug? For one thing, he’s win­ning, and smug­ness is the sin­gu­lar prove­nance of win­ners. Fur­ther­more, as an ex­ten­sive pro­file in The At­lantic demon­strated, Pence be­lieves he is win­ning for a very sat­is­fy­ing rea­son: be­cause God wants it to be so. An evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian, “Pence is a man who be­lieves heaven and earth have con­spired to place him a heart­beat — or an im­peach­ment vote — away from the pres­i­dency,” per The At­lantic’s pro­file.

Pence be­lieves God has a plan, not just for him but also for ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially if he agrees with his nu­mer­ous co-re­li­gion­ist white evan­gel­i­cals who be­lieve that we are liv­ing in the end times. Hav­ing God on your side of an apoc­a­lyp­tic war is bound to send shiv­ers of sat­is­fac­tion down one’s spine, at least from time to time.

The prob­lem is that Pence is no longer just a re­li­gious man. Now he’s also a very pow­er­ful one. It’s one thing to be smug when you’re a pri­vate cit­i­zen, to per­son­ally en­joy the good for­tune that landed you in the cor­rect re­li­gion. But it’s quite an­other thing to be a smug elected of­fi­cial or leader. Many peo­ple ac­cused Barack Obama of be­ing smug, but his smug­ness was not re­li­giously mo­ti­vated. Com­bine smug­ness and power with re­li­gious con­vic­tion, and you get some­thing ter­ri­fy­ing.

Hints of this mix­ture were ev­ery­where in Pence’s speech at the Knes­set. “In the story of the Jews, we’ve al­ways seen the story of Amer­ica,” Pence said. “It is the story of an ex­o­dus, a jour­ney from per­se­cu­tion to free­dom, a story that shows the power of faith and the prom­ise of hope.” In other words, it’s a story of win­ning.

Pence re­vealed a sur­pris­ing source for his smug-cum-tri­umphal­ist talk, and it was a Jewish source.

As The Times of Is­rael re­ported, it was none other than the for­mer chief rabbi of Eng­land Jonathan Sacks who helped Pence write his Knes­set speech.

Why Sacks? Surely the vice pres­i­dent of Amer­ica could have found an Amer­i­can rabbi to help him pen his speech. But it was Sacks whose for­mer work most closely repli­cated what Pence sought. As TOI as­tutely notes, much of Pence’s speech was bor­rowed from Sacks’s own work.

When Pence said that “it was the faith of the Jewish peo­ple that gath­ered the scat­tered frag­ments of a peo­ple and made them whole again, that took the lan­guage of the Bi­ble and the land­scape of the Psalms and made them live again,” he was not only echo­ing the well-trod­den trope of Is­raelis mak­ing the desert bloom. Ac­cord­ing to TOI, Pence was bor­row­ing from an au­dio CD called “Is­rael — Home of Hope,” re­leased in 2008, where Sacks said: Is­rael has achieved great things. It has taken a bar­ren land and made it bloom again. It’s taken an an­cient lan­guage, the He­brew of the Bi­ble, and made it speak again. It’s taken the West’s old­est faith and made it young again. Is­rael has taken a tat­tered, shat­tered na­tion and made it live again.

As the Sacks/Pence over­lap shows, Jews are no strangers to tri­umphal­ist nar­ra­tives.

Af­ter all, we’re the cho­sen peo­ple.

For if smug­ness is what it looks like to oth­ers, cho­sen­ness is what it feels like in­side.

Mike Pence, like the his­tor­i­cal Jews, feels he has been cho­sen. One sees this im­me­di­ately when com­par­ing Pence to Pres­i­dent Trump. He is the op­po­site of smug; he’s con­stantly en­raged be­cause he hasn’t been granted what he be­lieves he de­serves. But in Pence’s grin is the sin­cere — and serene — be­lief that God is on his side. He’s been cho­sen.

But Pence’s tacit as­sump­tion of cho­sen­ness re­veals the dark side of the con­cept; there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween hold­ing on to a be­lief in the cho­sen peo­ple as a psy­cho­log­i­cal tool to over­come the in­dig­ni­ties and horrors of vi­o­lent di­as­pora and main­tain­ing that be­lief when you are the one in power.

Put dif­fer­ently, to be­lieve that God has cho­sen you to suf­fer is very dif­fer­ent from be­liev­ing that God has cho­sen you to suc­ceed –- and to suc­ceed po­lit­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily at that, where the lives of oth­ers are at stake.

It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween re­li­gious cho­sen­ness and po­lit­i­cal cho­sen­ness. And while Jews have sep­a­rated the two, Mike Pence has clearly com­bined them.

My col­league Jane Eis­ner dis­cussed this at length on For­ward.com, point­ing out how dan­ger­ous it is that Trump seems to have ceded the Is­rael lobby to the evan­gel­i­cals. Not only does this ex­clude Mus­lims, but “when fer­vent re­li­gious be­lief is en­twined with po­lit­i­cal power, when the re­sul­tant pol­icy is per­ceived to be di­vinely or­dained, it can be­come dan­ger­ous. It be­comes im­per­vi­ous to com­pro­mise. It can flare into a holy war.”

As Eis­ner notes, the Is­rael lobby in the hands of Jews like those of the Amer­i­can Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee and the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment by and large have es­chewed the re­li­giously driven be­liefs in Jewish su­pe­ri­or­ity or cho­sen­ness. If a small num­ber of Ortho­dox Jews still be­lieve that Is­rael’s suc­cesses are the re­sult of tcho­sen­ness, the vast ma­jor­ity of Jews — both in Amer­ica and in Is­rael — have long aban­doned this point of view.

In fact, Jonathan Sacks once did the same: In a 2001 in­ter­view, Sacks ques­tions the no­tion: “Af­ter all, aren’t we one hu­man­ity? Didn’t God cre­ate every man in his im­age?”

Sacks con­cludes that God cre­ated the Jewish peo­ple to be dif­fer­ent. “To teach the world the dig­nity of dif­fer­ence,” Sacks ex­plained. “That you can be dif­fer­ent from oth­ers and still be spe­cial.” Be­cause, Sacks ar­gues, “God loves di­ver­sity.” I wish this ver­sion of Sacks had made it into Pence’s speech. For the Sacks in this video is quite aware of the dan­gers of cho­sen­ness as a form of supremacy. So in­stead of en­dors­ing it, he com­posed an apolo­gia for it, trans­form­ing it into the lib­eral value of di­ver­sity to hide its prob­lem­atic im­pli­ca­tions.

This was not the Sacks that Pence sought out. In­stead of cel­e­brat­ing the holy value of di­ver­sity, Pence’s speech be­came the oc­ca­sion for its era­sure. Ush­ers dragged mem­bers of the Arab Joint List out of the Knes­set when they tried to in­ter­rupt Pence, which in turn led Ne­tanyahu to clap and grin (smugly).

We shouldn’t have been sur­prised, though. It

was proph­e­sied all along — in Pence’s grin.

Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon is the opin­ion edi­tor

of the For­ward.

Like the his­tor­i­cal Jews, Pence be­lieves that he has been cho­sen.


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