Mike Pence and the 'Billy Graham Rule'

Their method of protecting their marriage may be misguided, but it shows the Pences have an admirable awareness of their own human weaknesses.

Mark Tenally / AP

What an age to be alive! The internet has broken out into a feverish and wildly entertaining debate over, of all things, the fallen nature of man. What prompted all of this was a profile of the vice president’s wife, Karen Pence, in The Washington Post, that included this detail about the vice president:

In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.

How sexist! screamed half of the internet. This is akin to Salafism, argued others. Conservative Christians who attempted to stand up for Pence were quickly shouted down.

I have to confess: As a present Calvinist and as a former management consultant, I find this all exhilarating.

First off, as my colleague Emma Green has written, the vice president’s rule is a variation of what is known in evangelical circles as the “Billy Graham Rule.” Billy Graham famously refused to meet, travel, or dine with a woman alone. The presumed reasoning behind this rule was that Graham did not want to create the conditions that might lead to any extramarital dalliances or, given Graham’s ministry, the mere appearance of any impropriety that would harm his ability to win souls to Christ. Many, many evangelical pastors and laymen still follow some version of this rule.

Those outside the Church should know the Billy Graham Rule has come under a lot of criticism within the Church. First off, it’s increasingly recognized that the Billy Graham Rule is sexist in practice if not in theory. Because the leadership in evangelical churches is almost entirely male, the Billy Graham Rule has served to stifle the development and discipleship of female members of the Church. All too often in evangelical churches, men are afforded opportunities to meet individually with their pastors for deep theological discussions over coffee or beers while women are herded into a “moms’ group” or other all-female gatherings.

Second, the Billy Graham Rule reinforces the sexist notion that women have less to contribute to the life of the Church. The Church has struggled with the same sexism present in broader society since its inception. The Bible itself, meanwhile, tells a very different story about the worth of women as disciples and leaders, from Ruth and Naomi in the Old Testament to Mary and Martha in the New. In the Bible, it’s generally the women who keep their faith when the men falter.

Outside the Church, meanwhile, rules like those the vice president follows likewise harm the professional development of—and the professional opportunities afforded to—women. If, as either governor of Indiana or vice president of the United States, Mike Pence would share a glass of scotch at the end of the day with a male subordinate in a way that he would not with a female subordinate, that creates an obviously unfair advantage for the men working under Pence. Leaders in both the private and public sectors have to be very careful about creating such unequal opportunities for mentorship and professional development.

It’s also a fact of life—and one heterosexual Christian men like myself need to come to grips with—that women have made broad gains in the workforce since the heyday of Billy Graham’s ministry. I spent the first years of my working life in an all-male environment in the U.S. Army’s infantry and special operations communities but have spent most of my subsequent professional life working in jobs and in offices where women were, at least on paper, equal members of the team.

I most recently completed two years as a manager in the federal government where I led a 45-person team of both men and women with whom I often traveled internationally. As a manager, it never occurred to me that I might not dine with one of my female subordinates while abroad: Leaving aside my own merits as a dinner companion, to not afford them the same opportunities professionally that I afforded my male subordinates would have been grossly unfair.

All that having been said, count me among those who sympathizes with Mike and Karen Pence. I’m not sure when Americans stopped being so clear-eyed about man’s sinful nature, but it surely wasn’t too long ago that we could all agree that men and women are frail creatures who, when left to their own devices, often fail to do the right thing morally.

The dim view of man’s nature that informs Mike Pence’s rules for himself would have been as familiar to Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume as they would have been to John Calvin or Martin Luther. Based on the outrage among progressives that Mike Pence’s rule sparked, I’m guessing Hume’s own influence on Alexander Hamilton in this regard—which greatly informed the decisions Hamilton and other founding fathers made as they created America’s national institutions—did not make it into the Lin-Manuel Miranda version of Hamilton’s life.

In addition, speaking as a married man, I am very reluctant to cast judgment on whatever measures a couple take to protect the sanctity of their marriage. I am married to a wonderful woman, and marriage is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It’s also the hardest thing I have ever done, including parenting two small boys and making three combat deployments. Marriage is hard work, and when I see stories in the news about men and women who have strayed from their marriage vows, my first instinct is not to point and laugh but to instead be deeply saddened and reflect: There go I but for the grace of God.

My wife is an accomplished scientist, and we move easily in the more secular, educated circles of the Acela Corridor, but we actually met in … Bible study. (I am sometimes so sheepish about that fact that I instead tell people we met beta-testing Tinder.) We go to church with lots of people who think about marriage the same way the Pences think about theirs: That it’s a precious thing that must be carefully protected. And while I have come to believe the Billy Graham Rule and its variants are misguided, I completely understand why a husband and wife would want to place guardrails in their personal conduct to protect their marriage from both the temptations of the flesh as well as the many other ways in which marriages can atrophy or grow cold over time.

The Pences, at the very least, seem to have a healthy understanding of their own weaknesses. And that’s something to which we should all aspire.