Presidents have often alluded to manifest destiny when discussing space exploration: outer space is the next frontier. Presidential administrations have often conflated the imperative to pursue new knowledge with an American duty to lead other nations towards the stars. However, Vice President Mike Pence has recast the conversation in a way that hasn’t been present since the space race of the 1980s: cosmic exploration as a proxy for Christian nationalism. Pence’s rhetoric around the cosmos is a perfect vehicle through which he can solidify President Trump’s evangelical base. The nationalism that’s being sold in these speeches however, may shift space policies away from the international collaboration and back toward Cold War-era antagonism.
Mike Pence relentlessly pursues space initiatives and policies. In early October of last year, a day after the 60th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch, he reconvened the National Space Council that had been disbanded under President Clinton. He has pushed for less red tape for commercial space companies, arguing that the government was not prioritizing the industry adequately. Most notably, this August, Pence was the driving force behind the proposal of a Space Force, which would create a separate wing of the military for outer-space mobilization. There was even some discussion of creating a new logo—Pence left out none of the frills that typically accompany such nationalistic and symbolic initiatives.
Both nationalism and symbolism have been part of the space-exploration process as long as scientists have built rockets. During the Cold War, space was publicly portrayed as a battleground between Christian capitalism and atheistic communism. US advances in space were considered not only Christian advances but proof of American exceptionalism. Cultural anthropologist Diana Weibel described the framing of the space race as, “a competition between those who loved and feared God, and those who sought to defy God’s existence.” Pence’s advocacy for the Space Force harkens back to the symbolic roots of that competition.
His speeches have a spiritual quality that frame space in a totally unique way. Other presidents and presidential representatives have spiritualized space: Lyndon Johnson called for the US to be the “space pioneers who lead the way to the stars,” George W. Bush drew a parallel to Lewis and Clark, and Reagan even referred to space as “the face of god,” but never before has a policy-maker framed space as an overtly religious quest. Pence frequently references evangelical text when he addresses the astronomical community. At the inauguration of the Space Council he remarked, “… as we embark, let us have faith. Faith that, as the Old Book teaches us, that if we rise to the heavens, He will be there.” Leaving very little vagaries, exploring Pence’s space is both a duty and right for his base of evangelical Americans.
Nationalism is not an uncommon topic in Mike Pence’s faith. One relevant principle promoted among some evangelical communities is called Christian Nationalism. Equal parts religion and patriotism, Christian Nationalism posits that the US has a special covenant with God, and is therefore destined to lead globally. Pence’s sermon-like appeals for prioritizing outer space policies fall right in line with what Christian Nationalism pushes for—a more explicitly American-isolationist legislative pathway, in this case leading up into space. In his interviews with members of the Evangelical community—specifically those members that share Mike Pence’s particular brand of the faith—Researcher Joshua Ambrosious found that when it comes to space, “evangelicals may be likely to view space exploration favorably if it is framed as something essential for a successful country.” Pence’s space policies nicely feed the nationalism essential to further galvanize this base.
The cultivation of this framing of space in Pence’s evangelical base as a rallying point is not a harmless strategy. Pence’s nationalistic policy path for space, like his creation of a new American military branch, narrows the collaborative culture of space exploration today. The Cold War may have been the country’s most space-enthusiastic era, but it wasn’t the country’s most productive. Projects like the Hubble telescope were completed with aid from dozens of different countries, and have taught us more about space than the US could have learned on its own. Isolationism in Space would be detrimental to America’s progress in space.
Several officials have expressed concern about the possible exclusion of other faiths Pence’s rhetoric might inspire. Others fear the agency may face public backlash spawning from the religious behavior of the Vice President, like NASA has in the past when astronauts have held spiritual services in space. But the slower shift that Pence’s rhetoric might inspire—a shift that involves less collaboration as Pence uses outer space spiritualism to strengthen the Presidential bond to a nationalistically-minded base—is what NASA should truly fear.
Photo: Moon, Structure, Church