Two Problems with Mike Pence’s Naval Academy Address

I noticed the other day that Donald Trump’s name now appears in the list of this blog’s most popular tags. That’s disappointing on all sorts of levels, one of which is that I’ve tried hard this year to focus on the stated themes of this blog and not write as much about politics as I did last year. That’s as much for my sake as yours: I don’t know how political commentators are maintaining their sanity these days.

But if only because I’ll be listening to a commencement address tomorrow morning, I can’t resist commenting on what Vice President Mike Pence said today as the class of 2017 graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.

I’ll skip past the preliminaries and focus on the words of exhortation and admonition, the heart of any commencement address. See if you can spot the problems:

Remember that character is destiny.  Be men and women of integrity.  People follow people they trust.

I truly believe that among the most important qualities of leadership — whether it’s in the armed forces or any other endeavor — are humility, orientation to authority, and self-control.  And I encourage you to cultivate these qualities as leaders in increasing measure every day from this day forward.

With humility, consider others to be more important than yourselves.  Be servant leaders.  Approach every challenge as a learner and a listener first.  In multiple counselors there is wisdom, and the best decisions by the best leaders come from counsel and collaboration.

Next is orientation to authority.  Nothing I have to explain to those of you sitting before me today.  Follow the chain of command without exception.  Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you.  Trust your superiors, trust your orders, and you’ll serve and lead well.

And lastly, as arduous as it has been, the physical training in this place, I encourage you to continue, to practice the discipline of self-control.

There’s an old proverb that says:  “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”

And I truly believe that commanding others first begins with being able to command yourself.  Discipline is the foundation of leadership.

Integrity, humility, orientation to authority, and self-control are my admonition to you today.

Mike Pence campaigning in 2016
Alas, I can’t find a public domain image of the speech itself, so this photo of Pence on the campaign trail last November will have to suffice – Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

We’ll come back to “orientation to authority,” but let me start by saying how happy I am that VPOTUS emphasized traits like humility and self-control. Undoubtedly, these are “important qualities of leadership,” pursuit of which would indeed let all those future officers again “prove yourselves worthy of the trust that your Commander-in-Chief is placing in you today, to be faithful defenders of our nation and our way of life.”

He might have added that the best way to practice those virtues is to do the opposite of their Commander-in-Chief, whose first months in office have shown over and over the danger of great power unchecked by either humility or self-control. Instead, Pence proceeded to praise his boss, “the best friend the Armed Forces of the United States will ever have.”

My political science colleagues at Bethel don’t think impeachment is all that likely, but if it (or resignation, or a 25th Amendment solution) does come to pass, I hope people across the political spectrum remember all the water that Mike Pence has carried for Donald Trump.

In particular, I hope we all recall Pence’s exhortation about “orientation to authority… Follow the chain of command without exception. Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you. Trust your superiors, trust your orders, and you’ll serve and lead well.”

Of course, “the saying” he cribbed is actually Holy Scripture:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14, NIV)

Or maybe that sentence was his way of summing up some other apostolic instructions:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1-2, NIV)

There’s plenty to be argued about here, even if we act as if the New Testament has any kind of authority over the religiously plural officer corps that protects a democratic republic that separates church and state. (Pence closed by urging those “of a mind” to “have faith that He who planted this miracle of democracy on these wilderness shores and has seen her through every trial and has seen you through the challenges of the last four years will never leave you, never forsake you, and that no matter where your path may lead, He will always be there to calm the storm and guide you home.”) But it’s a troubling line, one that revives last year’s concerns about the possibility of military officers being given illegal orders by Pres. Trump.

You might want to contrast how Pence seems to understand “orientation to authority” in a democracy with this excerpt from an earlier address at the Naval Academy: by Pres. Barack Obama in 2009.

These great opportunities come with great responsibilities. Indeed, midshipmen and Presidents swear a similar oath, not only to protect and defend the American people, but the Constitution of the United States.

Barack Obama congratulating a new naval ensign in 2009
Pres. Obama at the 2009 Naval Academy commencement ceremony – U.S. Navy

Yesterday I visited the National Archives and the halls that holds our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, and our Bill of Rights. I went there because, as our national debate on how to deal with the security challenge that we face proceeds, we must remember this enduring truth: The values and ideals in those documents are not simply words written into aging parchment, they are the bedrock of our liberty and our security. We uphold our fundamental principles and values not just because we choose to, but because we swear to; not because they feel good, but because they help keep us safe and keep us true to who we are.

Because when America strays from our values, it not only undermines the rule of law, it alienates us from our allies, it energizes our adversaries, and it endangers our national security and the lives of our troops. So as Americans, we reject the false choice between our security and our ideals. We can and we must and we will protect both. (Applause.) And that is just what you will pledge to do in a few moments when you raise your right hand and take your oath.

While Pence didn’t so much as mention the Constitution in his lengthy remarks, Obama understood that his audience does not swear to obey their Commander-in-Chief or anyone else in the chain of command, but to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” Pence should know the words: he swore the same oath earlier this year. Unfortunately, he chose not to use this important stage to reiterate that, whatever else has changed, certain “fundamental principles and values” other than blind submission to authority figures remain “the bedrock of our liberty and our security.”