Indiana’s Christian Governors (Guest Post by Russ Pulliam)

The Christian conservative movement may be dwindling in other parts of the United States.

But in Indiana politics it has matured into a dominant influence in state government.

The recent handoff from outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels to his successor Mike Pence illustrates the trend.

Pence is more vocal about his personal faith in Christ and has been a favorite of Tea Party conservatives for his fiscal conservatism as a member of the House of Representatives.

Daniels shares the same faith in Christ as Pence but is more reticent about expressing his commitment. He has governed as more of a fiscal conservative than a social one.

Together the governors offer an intriguing comparison and contrast about how Christians carry their faith into the public arena.

For Republicans Daniels has been the state’s strongest governor since the Civil War Gov. Oliver P. Morton. Facing a big deficit when he took office in 2005, he moved quickly to cut spending and balance the budget. He leased the state toll road, unleashing $2.5 billion worth of road and highway improvements that his predecessors had drawn up on paper but never could figure out how to finance. He got the General Assembly to put the state on daylight savings time. The time zone question had divided the state for years. He shortened the waiting time at Bureau of Motor Vehicle license branch facilities.

The big and small stuff added up. He won a second term in 2008, even as Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. Though he had worked in politics more behind the scenes, not as a candidate, his campaigns for governor were tactically brilliant. He rode in a big RV around the state and stayed in people’s homes many evenings.

In that approach he applied what William Symington called Christ’s near relationship to His people in his classic work on the kingdom, Messiah the Prince. The strongest political candidates often unwittingly apply this truth, finding ways to connect to people, sometimes with gimmicks. But in the case of Daniels people get to know you pretty well when you spend the night at their homes.

Daniels also showed some of Christ’s power, or the capacity to get things done, which was one of what Symington called Christ’s qualifications for the kingly office.

In his second term Daniels pushed through the state’s biggest education changes in history – more charter schools; private school scholarships for poor children to escape public schools; merit pay for teachers. Behind these moves was a guiding principle from Scripture that parents have a primary responsibility for the education of their children. Daniels thought that families ought to have as much choice in schools as possible, regardless of income.

Like Ronald Reagan he had lots of liberal critics, but even some of his critics came to appreciate parts of his record in his second term. His fiscal conservatism came in handy in the recession, as the state suffered less than neighbors such as Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. He left the state with a AAA credit rating and $1 billion surplus.

His emphasis on the economy tended to obscure a solid record as a social conservative, He prefers Bible passages such as James 1:22, to be a doer of a Word, rather than a talker about it. Before he was governor, he helped start an inner city private school in the state capital, Indianapolis, Oaks Academy, with a remarkable 50-50 racial balance mixed with classical and Christian emphasis. Daniels is a no-nonsense manager and doesn’t cry for the cameras the way Bill Clinton could. But, as governor, he could break down emotionally in speaking to smaller audiences about the faith side of this endeavor, remembering the prayer meetings late at night when the school was about to run out of money in the early years.

The school also became an anchor in a neighborhood transformation of what had been one of the worst crime sections of the city. City government had a part in the transformation, especially on financing new home construction on the vacant lots that dominated the area. That effort combined providentially with faith-based initiatives such as Oaks and the now-flourishing Redeemer Presbyterian Church(PCA). The church started as a Bible study in the home of the founding family of Bill and Joanna Taft and has become an anchor in urban renewal. Oaks Academy indirectly laid the groundwork for education reform in the state, by showing how high expectations could lead to better education in a low-income part of town.

Daniels also gave eloquent speeches about the crying need for each child to have a father and mother staying committed to each other, for the sake of the children. A governor cannot issue executive orders keeping people in harmonious marriages. Yet Daniels had practiced what he preached, both deepening his faith in Christ and reuniting with his wife Cheri after a divorce in the 1990s.

In contrast to Pence, he was never a big favorite of the Christian conservative groups in Indiana or nationally. He once called for a truce on social issues debate, trying to make  the point that a nation that literally runs out of cash cannot pay for military defense or anything else. Economists explaining basic math are seldom popular.

Even so, for a time in 2011 he could have jumped into the presidential race and perhaps offered a stronger race against Barack Obama than Mitt Romney did. Instead he’ll be president of Purdue University and try his reform-minded perspective on higher education.

His successor Mike Pence doesn’t have the same hard-nosed managerial style. Like Daniels, he was a conservative presidential hope in 2011. His advisers realized he’d need executive branch experience rather than trying to be the first one since James Garfield to go from the House of Representatives to the White House.

He talks about taking Indiana from good to great. A former radio talk show host, he’s more of a traditional values cheerleader than Daniels. He also has a friendly manner and likes to say he is a conservative but he’s not in a bad mood about it. He’s been a favorite among Christian conservatives both in Indiana and nationally. His family is a part of the nondenominational Community Church of Greenwood, whereas Daniels has been a long-time member of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, with its history of inner-city mission in Indianapolis.

What’s surprising is how two Christian conservative Republicans, of different styles but  similar views of the world, have come to dominate Indiana state government in recent years. They have done so even as Barack Obama worked his electioneering magic on Indiana in 2008 over Republican John McCain.

Timing may be a factor. Daniels was an influential behind the scenes political player for 30 years in Indiana circles. When he decided to run for governor and try to end 16 years of Democratic dominance of the governor’s office, other potential Republicans rivals stepped out of his way in 2004.  The exception was social conservative Eric Miller, a Religious Right lobbyist who attracted about 30 percent of the Republican Party vote in a 2004 primary. Daniels never identified himself as a social conservative movement candidate in the first place, and he wasn’t especially public about his faith. But he had keen grasp of market economics, and he applied it at the state level with unusual success.

Pence, 53, younger than Daniels, 63, had run for the House in 1988 and 1990, losing both times. He put his Christian faith to work in the aftermath, repenting publicly of negative campaigning and befriending Democrats as he spent the 1990s in the political wilderness of talk radio in Indiana. Coming back into politics in a 2000 race for the House of Representatives, he quickly became a leader of conservatives in the House of Representatives and helped them enlarge their numbers and influence until he ran for governor.

The Religious Right movement may not be so much dead or dwindling as evolving in states such as Indiana. Politically the movement is even stronger, in the governor’s office, but also in the state’s General Assembly, with a number of younger Christian conservatives working their way into leadership positions. Though he steers clear of political parties and ideological labels, Matt Barnes has earned the personal trust of many members of the General Assembly as an informal chaplain in state government. Matt works behind the scenes as a kind of pastor to political leaders and state government workers and helps lead a weekly Bible study for members of the Legislature. Matt’s ministry, less than a decade old, has built on a foundation of earlier fellowship among older believers, such as former Secretary of State Ed Simcox, former state Sen. Jim Butcher, former state Rep. Steve Stoughton and the late state Rep. Bill Long.

The era of top-down national leadership of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or James Dobson has faded from the national political scene. But a voter hunger for leaders of Christian faith and limited government is still available for the harvest by competent candidates like Daniels and Pence.

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Russ Pulliam is an associate editor at the Indianapolis Star, serves on the board of WORLD magazine, and is an elder of the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis.

One Comment

  1. mindari February 1, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    Fascinating…I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in Indiana under Gov. Pence.

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