Back in March the Washington Post ran a profile of Mike Pence’s wife which mentioned his longstanding practice of not socializing alone with women other than his family. News of this practice was met with scorn, outrage, and derision by many critics. In their view, this was an affront to the equality of women in the workplace – or worse (this is the rape culture at work!).
At the time, I pointed out that while Pence’s scruples may seem highly unusual to some, this was a widely accepted safe-guard among those of us who are labeled “evangelicals” (it even has a name – the “Billy Graham Rule”). For those of us who believe that marriage is truly a sacred commitment before God, maintaining clear boundaries around marriage is just common sense. I recognized then (and now) that not everyone shares the same religious convictions about (what used to be commonly referred to as) “holy matrimony,” and that even among those who do, not everyone follows this cautious principle. But I argued that surely even those who disagree with how Pence and his wife approach this matter of judgment could at least see why they do so, and maybe even feel a certain sense of grudging admiration for such conviction.
Alas, that was not to be. Critics just double downed on the Pences, and on me. There was no empathy for differing religious convictions. No, this was simply a matter of brazen sexism, a denial of opportunities for women Pence would not socialize with in private. And I was not spared, either. One person on Facebook even
insinuated directly charged that since I follow the same rule, I must not trust my wife very much (so much for tolerance and diversity!!).
Indeed, of all the exchanges I have had on Facebook, this one was by far the most depressing. It truly stunned me that some segments of our society are so antagonistic to conservative-minded Christians that it was not even possible for them to allow for any other motives for this practice other than sinister chauvinism. And it also revealed just how pervasive crassly political tribal thinking is, since the overwhelming percentage of critics were Trump bashers, and Pence’s role as his running mate clearly drew much of this fire (of course, I did as well, and I was an outspoken “NeverTrumper”).
It was also bizarre to me to see how the opinions of Christian women like my wife were brushed aside. Kristi was a hard-working professional woman for many years, and – like many other women I know – was completely in support of Pence’s approach. Many single, professional Christian women were adamant on social media about how uncomfortable it would make them if a male superior wanted to socialize alone with them. But since this did not fit the dominant narrative of the critics, these views were breezily dismissed.
Nor did it matter that – as the son of a single mother who worked two jobs most of her life to make ends meet – even though I wanted my mom to be treated with absolute fairness, that I also appreciated the way my mom’s bosses conducted themselves toward her by never putting her in a private social situation. No, unless one subscribed to the particular approach to equality that the critics espoused, this was discrimination, plain and simple. End of discussion.
And then, the dam broke.
Just to name a few.
Not all of these cases are identical, of course. Some involved men who were married, others involved men who were single. Some involved children, and some cases involved same-sex abuses. But here is one thing they all have in common – they all took place in private. And in many instances, they occurred in social settings connected to work.
There is every reason to believe that many, many more cases will come to light. Inappropriate sexual conduct is epidemic on Capitol Hill, and my guess is that there are many Congressmen nervously checking the news every day to see if/when they are named. But what is especially revealing is this CNN story about the unwritten rules of female Congressional staffers:
Be extra careful of the male lawmakers who sleep in their offices — they can be trouble. Avoid finding yourself alone with a congressman or senator in elevators, late-night meetings or events where alcohol is flowing. And think twice before speaking out about sexual harassment from a boss — it could cost you your career.
These are a few of the unwritten rules that some female lawmakers, staff and interns say they follow on Capitol Hill, where they say harassment and coercion is pervasive on both sides of the rotunda.
Avoid finding yourself alone with a congressman or senator in elevators, late-night meetings or events where alcohol is flowing.
That’s not the rule of the Ayatollah Mike Pence. It is the rule that women in the congressional workplace have devised to protect themselves.
What is very curious to me is that when Mike Pence follows this rule, it is benighted sexism, or worse. But when women themselves insist on the very same rule, there is nary a peep from anyone. It makes me wonder if the real motivation behind many of Pence’s critics was not concern about sexism, but thinly veiled prejudice against conservative-minded Christians. And the fact that I have never seen any of the same erstwhile champions of feminism criticize traditional Muslims or Orthodox Jews who practice the same scruple makes me even more cynical.
Look, I am sympathetic regarding the concern that women get fair treatment in the workplace. I understand why some people think the “Billy Graham Rule” is unfair, and could rob women of opportunities. I disagree with this – as do many professional women – but I get it. If I had a job in the business world, I may even choose not to socialize in private with anyone who worked for me, just to avoid the appearance of favoritism.
But it is astonishing to me how utterly incapable many of Pence’s critics (and mine) were to offer any kind of charitable regard for the convictions behind his practice. I wonder if the recent avalanche of stories about exploitation of women in private has caused some of those critics to take pause. Since most of these criticism were prompted by shill ideological dogmatism, I doubt it.
But just to restate the case, for some of us, marriage is a sacred and beautiful commitment to God to pledge lifelong devotion to one husband/wife. And like all sacred and beautiful things, it deserves careful protection. The issue here is not some kind of arrogant conceit that I possess such an aura of animal magnetism that any women caught in private with me would surely throw herself at me. To even write that sentence has me laughing out loud in my study! Nor is the issue here whether I trust my spouse – I do, with my life. The issue is whether I trust myself. And while I hope and think I would always maintain my integrity, the simple truth is that the religious landscape is littered with the broken lives of men and women who thought they were impervious to temptation, only to learn that what Jesus said is true – “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
Further, the approach that Pence, myself, and others take in these matters is also designed to avoid making women feel uncomfortable, given the general moral climate we live in. As the unwritten rules of these female congressional staffers reveal, many women prefer this approach for their own security. The fact that so many critics were incapable of seeing this reveals an enormous blindspot.
We have been studying the Book of Job in our Wednesday night adult class at church. This past Wednesday we looked at Job’s oath of innocence, his final protest that he is not guilty of sin and doesn’t deserve to be punished. As he lays out evidence of his integrity, the very first thing he mentions is his conduct toward young women:
I have made a covenant with my eyes;
how then could I gaze at a virgin?
What would be my portion from God above
and my heritage from the Almighty on high?
Is not calamity for the unrighteous,
and disaster for the workers of iniquity?
Does not he see my ways
and number all my steps? (Job 31:1-4)
In the ancient world, men of status like Job often collected harems. And it was commonplace for landowners and field hands to take advantage of the young ladies who came to work in their fields. But Job did neither. He made a covenant – a solemn vow – not to even look at a young woman in this light. All because he knew he was accountable to God.
To my friends who are committed to Christ-honoring purity, do not be discouraged. Yes, we live in a collapsing culture – a time when even many who profess to be Christians are willing to excuse or rationalize just about anything. Taking up the cross of Jesus has never been easy. But as Job believed, our heritage is from the Almighty on high, and we can trust in Jesus’ promise that the pure in heart with someday see him (Matthew 5:8).