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Even the most apathetic participant in our fair democracy is hard-pressed to avoid the ubiquity of the 2016 presidential election. It is leaking into even the most innocuous parts of our lives, from the pop culture, to social media to music, and a fair number of musicians and music industry players have made their involvement known.
Since the vice presidential debates were last night — and since one of the topics these two men touched on was abortion, something I, a possessor of a uterus, am particularly interested in — I was reading a bit of background on the two VP candidates.
So were other people, obviously, so when a tweet about Pence and a music festival caught my eye, I had to dig deeper into this off-the-wall connection. Turns out Republican VP candidate Mike Pence was in a fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta to be exact, as reported back in June in a piece The New York Times did on Pence’s religion. It really isn’t surprising or unusual that Pence was in a fraternity, and it’s really not surprising or unusual that he subscribes to the Christian faith, but what is unusual is that the Times cites a music festival as the site of Pence’s conversion to said faith:
When Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana was in college, he found himself admiring a gold cross hanging from the neck of his fraternity “big brother.”
The response he received left such a powerful impression that he would recall it decades later on the floor of Congress.
“Remember, Mike, you have got to wear it in your heart before you wear it around your neck,” Mr. Pence said his fraternity brother told him.
Soon after this exchange, at a Christian music festival in Kentucky, Mr. Pence took a very different sort of pledge from the one he had taken to join Phi Gamma Delta. “I gave my life to Jesus Christ,” he recalled years later, “and that’s changed everything.”
Wow. As the initial tweet that sparked this investigation rightly asked, what went down at that fest? These days, we think of music festivals as a place to see all your favorite mainstream musical artists in one weekend, with a few indie acts thrown in for good measure. Aside from the few mainstream Christian music festivals (read up on it here if you’re ignorant of that ecosystem), there are few that offer altar calls or are equipped to convert someone to Christianity. In other words, this was probably not Lollapalooza.
As the Times goes on to document, since that festival, Pence has been one of the most outspoken members of our government to use his evangelical Christian religion as a compass for his stance on public policies, one of those being abortion, which he is adamantly against and recently signed a state law restricting access to. Pence has also actively sought to defund Planned Parenthood, and tried to pass a law in Indiana that made it legal for people to refuse service to gay couples. The law was shot down as discriminatory.
The Times piece indicates the music festival was in Kentucky, and since Pence was born in 1959 and was in college when he attended, it seems reasonable that he was between 18 and 22 at the time, so it took place somewhere between 1977 and 1981. The most prominent Christian music festival that was active in Kentucky during this time was the Ichthus Music Festival, which began in 1970 and ran until 2012, but has since been discontinued.
This is all conjecture based off internet research, but it seems pretty likely that Ichthus was the festival that changed Pence’s life — and possibly the course of law in our country — forever. Pence’s conversion broke with his family’s devout Catholicism, a move so rebellious that his mother wouldn’t even talk to the Times for their piece on his faith. Ah yes, religion, the thing that brings families together.
It’s easy to take music and the environment it creates for granted, but let’s use this case study to remember just how powerful music festivals can be. I wonder if teenaged Pence, who was so moved by the disparity between a gold cross necklace and believing principles of faith in your heart, would agree with his current self’s decision to support Trump? As the Times also recently pointed out, many Christians don’t.
Final thought: If anyone reading this happened to be at Ichthus in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and can confirm Mike Pence was there, please leave your best memories in the comments. I still want to know way more details about that festival experience.