Last week The Washington Post reported on Vice-President Mike Pence’s longstanding practice of avoiding one-on-one meals with women (other than his wife). This elicited a round of jeers and criticisms from many quarters. Since it is curious to me that many of these harsh judgments came from people who ordinarily espouse tolerance and inclusion, I made the following comment on Facebook –
It is amusing to see those “nonjudgmental” types who champion “tolerance” now bashing Mike Pence for his personal choices.
What followed was the most astonishing Facebook thread I have ever been a part of. Many of my friends claimed that this policy is sexist, that is discriminates against women by shutting them out of business lunches and other opportunities that men may have. This echoed the complaint various columnists lodged about his practice, such as this Atlantic columnist-
Because of that, when men avoid professional relationships with women, even if for noble reasons, it actually hurts women in the end.
If only all of the critical comments were this reasoned. Instead, other friends went full out Islamophobe, claiming that Pence’s practice is – to quote – “limiting women’s representation to that table of government. Sounds like Iran and Shiria law!!!” (original exclamation points and misspelling).
But not even this can match the hysterical reaction of this columnist:
At its core, Pence’s self-imposed ban is rape culture.
So Mike Pence is either a sexist, Islamist, or rapist (or rape enabler).
It doesn’t surprise me at all that those who do not come from a conservative-minded Christian frame of reference are puzzled by Pence’s scruples about dining alone with women. Even many evangelicals think his approach is quaint. But to castigate the practice as sexist or worse is an extreme overreaction.
My Mom was a single working woman all of my life. My wife was a full-time career person for many years until she was diagnosed with cancer. Needless to say, I am sensitive to women getting a fair shake in the workplace. But neither my Mom nor my wife would have felt that a boss who followed the same practice as Mike Pence was necessarily discriminating against them. As many ladies put it on my Facebook page (or in private messages to me), they would have appreciated a male boss with that sort of sensitivity.
Is it possible that a man could use this practice as a tactic to exclude women from possibilities for deals or advancement? Of course. I would hope that any women who feel discriminated against would take the matter up with HR or other appropriate channels (I would certainly have hoped this for my Mom and wife). And it may be that the best approach would simply be not to have any one-on-one meals, period. I can certainly understand how some situations in the business world may occasionally require one-on-one meetings between men and women. But from my point of view, that only strengthens the case that for someone with convictions like Pence, discretionary private social times with people of the opposite sex should be avoided.
And his convictions happen to be ones that I share, convictions such as:
- Marriage is holy, but sexual immorality and adultery face the judgment of God (Hebrews 13:4).
- That unfaithfulness begins, as Jesus taught, with the eyes and the heart (Matthew 5:28).
- That the human heart is deceitful above all else and must be closely guarded (Jeremiah 17:9).
- That since this is the case, we should make every effort not to give lust an opportunity (Romans 13:14).
Not everyone accepts these statements as true. But I do, and that is why I have taken the same basic approach to my interactions with women other than my wife that Mike Pence has. It is not because I have trust issues with my wife, or she with me. I have trust issues with ME. And knowing of so many marriages that ended because of an initially innocent set of circumstances, I’ve determined that this is the best course for me to take. Some things in life are so precious and valuable that they deserve extra care and protection. My relationship with my wife is one of them.
Now, does this mean that every Christian absolutely has to take the same precautionary steps that I have, or Mike Pence has? Of course not. But does this therefore mean that those who do are sexists, Islamists, or rapists?!?
What boggles my mind about some of the reactions in the general media and on my Facebook thread is the sheer judgmentalism of the negative responses. For many of Pence’s critics, there is virtually no sexual practice worthy of censure. But taking cautious measures to respect the sanctity of marriage? That’s SHARIAH LAW!
Not long ago, there was enough of a sense of common ground in our culture that even the very worldy-minded respected earnest believers for their convictions. For 50 plus years Billy Graham has been at the top, or near the top, of the list of the most admired men in America. Unlike many prominent evangelists, there has never been a whiff of scandal in his ministry, whether of a financial or sexual sort. And that’s no accident – Graham has taken serious measures to keep himself out of the very possibility of scandal, such as not being alone with women other than his wife (many people even call this the “Billy Graham rule”). Such scrupulous avoidance of temptation used to garner respect from the broader culture.
But that culture is slipping away. Why?
Undoubtedly part of the reaction against Pence is motivated by vulgar partisan politics. He’s a Republican, he’s Trump’s VP, so therefore anything he does is cause for criticism by the reactionary far Left. The far Right has its reactionaries as well who responded to President Obama much the same way. The current 24/7 news cycle feeds this relentless partisanship. As a #nevertrump conservative, I don’t have a lot of good to say about the current administration, either, but that is really immaterial to the principles at play in this case.
The other force at work here is the universal acid of identity politics. Every issue (especially for those on the Left) is now measured primarily in terms of sex, race, or sexual orientation. Is there a legitimate concern that women could be left out of opportunities by a policy like Pence follows? Of course – several of my friends raised reasonable concerns. But does this automatically mean that the policy is inherently sexist? Not according to the professional women who responded favorably to it on my thread.
But to those who are locked in the paradigm of identity politics, this policy can only be sexist. There can be no room for respect of conscience, no place for compromise. And certainly not the slightest admiration for conscientious scruples that are different from the dictates of identity politics. According to this ideology, it doesn’t matter that divorce is epidemic. That adultery is rampant. That pornography is ubiquitous. That sexual scandals engulf politicians (and preachers) on a regular basis. No, what is REALLY offensive is that someone seeking careful boundaries for their marriage MAY be guilty of limiting opportunities for women. THAT is the unpardonable sin.
Identity politics is not under the sole proprietorship of the Left. The Right has its version as well (the alt-right, white nationalist sort). And once the two extremes realize how much they have in common (like general disregard for religious freedom of conscience), this madness will only accelerate.
In the meantime, I feel that I should conclude my observations on this subject with some lines from Rod Dreher’s fantastic new book, The Benedict Option. I fear that some who read this post may go away from it with the wrong perspective on the Christian view of sexuality. The “Billy Graham rule” is a very narrow slice of a much bigger and more beautiful story. As Dreher writes,
To reduce Christian teaching about sex and marriage to bare, boring, thou-shalt-not moralism is a travesty and a failure of imagination (p. 209).
Instead, “when a man allows his desire for God to condition all his other loves,”
This is love as a glorious cosmic drama, transcending time and space, in which each individual joins with the eternal dance, sharing in “the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars” (p. 209)
That love is worth cherishing and guarding.