Mike Pence and the Liberal Moral Police

American Vice-President Mike Pence set commentators across the cultural spectrum all a-twitter this past week as it emerged that he had observed for years what quickly became known as the “Billy Graham Rule”: he refused to dine or otherwise be alone with a woman in any context in which the relationship could be misinterpreted.

The young preacher Billy Graham had adopted this rule (alongside strict financial accountability) under the shadow of “Elmer Gantry,” the Sinclair Lewis novel (later made into a sensational 1960 film) about a cynical and predatory travelling evangelist. The rule kept Graham out of trouble for decades even as journalists watched him like hawks.

Mike Pence has been married for over thirty years in a profession that, like Graham’s, is peculiarly fraught with opportunity for misbehaviour. Yet critics exploded over this marriage-protecting guideline.

The more preposterous tried to damn it as “rape culture.” Moderates shook their heads about how such a rule would continue to marginalize women professionally, sexualized what should be just day-to-day routines, etc., etc.

(Happily, at least a few commentators kept their heads.)

What was also interesting about this furore, however, was the complete lack of moral relativism exhibited on every side.

And the complete invisibility of Mr. Pence’s wife, Karen.

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5 Responses to “Mike Pence and the Liberal Moral Police”

  1. Jim Reilly

    As I read the commentary my mind flashes back and forth between images of Trump and Pence. I wonder what a moral divide or not when it comes to relationship with women. Same coin, two sides, both compromised.

  2. Stacey Gleddiesmith

    Hi John. I posted this on the article itself–but perhaps this is a better place for dialogue? –I understand what you’re saying, John. It seems inconsistent, at best, to proclaim freedom on the one hand, while expecting to control someone else’s behavior on the other. I wonder, however, would you be willing to comment on the underlying perspective of gender relationship (or non relationship) that the “Billy Graham Rule” implies? My specific concern is for an assumption of women as inherently “dangerous” and the assumption of men as essentially unable to control themselves. I realize that there is added pressure on public figures, and the constant threat of scandal (real or press-implied)… but I do feel that responding with strict separation is a fear-based response that robs us of the theological richness of a humanity made “male and female” in God’s image. Thoughts?

    • John

      Speaking strictly for myself: (1) women ARE inherently dangerous (!); (2) men can control themselves, but we have a very bad record in doing so (note the recent “Atlantic” article on why Silicon Valley still treats women so badly); (3) good rules are good inasmuch as they help us have better relationships, not worse; (4) compensation for the unwelcome consequences of good rules must be undertaken (e.g., make sure women are not under-mentored, left out of key decision-making meetings, have opportunity to form healthy relationships with male co-workers, etc.); and (5) rules in this particular area need to be both wisely flexible (so as not to produce unwanted outcomes) and tailored for individuals and situations (a politician or preacher is in a more demanding situation than would be people in certain other jobs).

      You speak of “fear-based response,” but I rather think we simply must be afraid, given our society’s recent record of keeping marriages together, avoiding adultery and other sexual sins, keeping one’s imagination pure, and the like. If one wouldn’t be frightened of sexual misbehaviour in *this* culture, then when *would* one be justified in being afraid?

      That said, clearly we men must be sure not to treat women in a way that now disadvantages them in other respects: We won’t be in situations where we can sexually harass (or seduce) you, but we also won’t be in situations where we can help (or just be friends with) you. *That* can’t be the right way to go. And this complementary and compensatory side of the Pence/Graham Rule is what we haven’t seen in the coverage, have we?

      So if we treat professional relationships as…professional relationships, and if we’re also realistic (in a zone in which self-delusion runs rampant: “Oh, it’s just coffee! Although sure, I’m going to run home first to change…”), then most of us, at least, ought to be fine. That’s the balance to strike, a balance I’m not hearing in the overheated reactions to the Pence/Graham Rule.

      And you?

      • Stacey Gleddiesmith

        Speaking not-quite-so-strictly for myself, I resonate with what you say about making sure we don’t limit contact with the opposite sex in a way that disadvantages women—unfortunately, in my experience this type of “rule” does just that. It shuts women out of rooms of influence and mentorship. It’s all too easy (and too common) for it to be used as an excuse. And even when not used as an excuse, the result is the same.

        When a man steps out of the elevator because I enter it, or when I don’t receive any mentorship in an internship/position because it’s not an option to meet with a pastor/prof one-on-one (and there are no women in high enough positions of leadership to mentor me!), or when a colleague refuses to set up a meeting with me (despite the fact that there are things we must discuss professionally) because that would be “unwise”—it becomes very difficult to read those actions as anything less than blatant rejection of me and my gender, or a perception of myself as somehow the cause of sin in someone else (that old story of Eve biting the apple first).

        I would not call this rape culture, that phrase goes too far for me, but I think we do have to recognize that the Pence/Graham rule carries shades of blaming women for their gender, for being a temptation to men (If you’re willing, I’d like further explanation of #1 on your list). I cannot see this perspective yielding any sort of healthy relationship between genders. I understand what you are saying about protecting marriages and the need to be wary in our over-sexualized culture, but surely there is a redemptive way forward that moves past fear. (And surely my husband and I, not society, are the guardians of our marriage.) The Atlantic article draws attention to the continuing problem of sexism and sexual assault in the workplace for women… but I’m not convinced that the Pence/Graham rule does anything to address this issue. It may even compound it. If, as you say, “good rules are good inasmuch as they help us have better relationships, not worse,” then in my experience this rule is simply not good.

        So yes, the press has gone its usual crazy over this story—but I’m not sure they have gone quite as crazy as you suggest.

        Further thoughts?

        • John

          It sounds like the men you describe have been content to shut you out of what they think are possibly compromising situations and NOT compensate for that in any meaningful way. So that’s just bad.

          As for women being dangerous, we laughed about that in my evening class tonight. I only mean this: There is only one class of creature in the entire universe that poses a sexual temptation to me. Not chairs, not trees, not refrigerators…you see where I’m going! So this one class of creature warrants special consideration. (I’m just replying to what I think are ingenuous or disgenuous reactions to Pence/Graham, and to other such controversies, in terms of “Oh, come on! Stop making us the evil temptresses and yourselves the hapless victims of desire.” Yeah, well, sorry, but women are exactly the only kind of creature toward whom I have sexual desire, so just deal.)

          Still, I doubt you and I disagree on any of that! I feel badly to hear you speak of men being so stupid and selfish as to deny you legitimate forms of mentoring, cooperation, and friendship. And as for absolutizing the rule, my goodness: Meet with the woman in your office while your colleagues are nearby, during normal hours, keeping the door open, and remaining on your side of the desk or coffee table, and just talk like a human being!

          So no, I don’t defend the rule per se. But the idea of having such rules? Well, everybody is drawing a line somewhere, right? Even people who think they’re mocking Pence say, “Well, a discussion in your office at 3 p.m. isn’t drinks at the bar at 11 p.m.” Okay, so you’re drawing the line in a different place. So maybe line-drawing isn’t the point, and failing to give women proper attention is.

          I’d like to think we can and should do both. I think most of us do, too. So let’s.


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