It’s charitable to first assume our fellow humans are acting in good faith, so let’s first assume that Robert Foster genuinely believes he is the hero of this story. Let’s assume that when the Mississippi gubernatorial candidate denied a female journalist access to his campaign because she is female, he truly saw himself as a bulwark against moral decay. This doesn’t make him right, of course, but it does give context to the problem — albeit a context that should terrify us all.
Larrison Campbell, a female reporter with Mississippi Today, revealed this week that she had asked to shadow Foster for a day on the campaign trail. Two of her colleagues were already following other contenders, but Foster turned down Campbell’s request — unless, that is, she brought along a male colleague. The reason? He obeys the “Billy Graham rule,” refusing to be alone with any woman other than his wife, or, as he put it, “avoid any decision that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage.”
Criticism followed, and Foster bristled at it: “The liberal left . . . can’t believe, that even in 2019, someone still values their relationship with their wife and upholds their Christian Faith,” he tweeted.
But unfortunately, there’s not a single inch of moral high ground achieved via the Billy Graham rule, which purports to honor marriage vows. In similar fashion, Vice President Pence once said he would not dine alone with a woman to whom he wasn’t married. But rules like these don’t honor your wife. They just presume that your marriage vows are so flimsy that you can’t be trusted to uphold them unless a babysitter monitors you. It’s rather like a thief sanctimoniously announcing that he brings a parole officer every time he goes to the bank to make sure he doesn’t rob it. Good for you, dude, for knowing your own limitations — but it doesn’t make you better than the rest of us, who manage to regularly not steal things even when we’re completely alone.
Or, as writer Jeremy White offered: “[The rule] presumes either: A) you can’t be trusted or B) women can’t be trusted. Everyone invoking that rule should be prepared to answer which is true.”
At other points, Foster’s camp seemed to imply that the issue wasn’t about his marriage vows but about optics. “We’re really concerned about bad publicity,” Campbell said Foster’s campaign director told her. The director mentioned the possibility of a rival campaign taking photographs of the pair together, which would put Foster in a “compromising position.”
There’s so much wrong with this logic that it’s difficult to know where to start.
It implies that a man and woman together are necessarily engaging in compromising activities. Even if they are in public. Even if one of them, like Campbell, is gay. Even if one of them is a candidate on the campaign trail and the other is holding a notebook and wearing a press badge, and they’re making the rounds of public events and rubber chicken dinners. (Truly, if this is what Foster considers being caught in flagrante, I feel deeply sad about his sex life.) It implies that Campbell is a love interest before she’s a journalist, even when she’s specifically there as a journalist.
This logic further implies that Foster’s silly, specious perception of a “compromised position” is more important than the actual compromised position that his policy creates for Campbell. She has been assigned a job that she is now unable to do. Her news outlet must decide whether to short its readers on coverage of a gubernatorial candidate on a matter of principle or capitulate to the candidate’s insulting demands. (They rightly chose the former and skipped the assignment).
The most harmful aspect of the Graham/Pence rule is this: It keeps women out of the room. It says that men can forward their careers via mentoring sessions, golf games and brainstorming lunches, but women cannot. Are we to gather that, because of this rule, Foster would also never employ a female chief of staff, attorney or accountant and never visit a female doctor, dentist or physical therapist, since all of those roles would necessitate occasional alone time?
These might be acceptable, if dispiriting, choices for a private citizen to make in his own life, but a governor making them has cascading effects for hundreds of thousands of people within his bureaucracy. The Graham/Pence rule prevents women from climbing to the top of their careers because the men who have the power to help them get there won’t even let them in the room.
To add insult to injury, the men barring the door get to use their faith as the deadbolt. Their discrimination is wrapped in piety; their disdain for women is disguised as honor for wives. Rather than figuring out how to do something truly moral, like create a world in which all genders are equally able to succeed, they create a delusion where women must be protected into oblivion.
Can you imagine if Foster’s faith-based rationale was rooted in any faith but Christianity? Can you imagine if a Muslim male candidate refused to be shadowed by a female reporter? What then do you suppose would be the reaction of far-right conservative evangelicals?
Can you imagine what a positive impact Foster could have had if he’d chosen a different route — highlighting his respect for women in professional roles, for example, or building enough trust in his marriage that it didn’t need to be governed by arbitrary rules? If he was uncomfortable with Campbell coming along alone, he could have provided his own campaign staffer, rather than asking her to bring a colleague. He could have brought his wife. He could have live-streamed the trip for video evidence of its propriety. He had options.
But late Wednesday night, Foster was still defending his position, presenting himself as the wronged party. “My wife and the State of Mississippi deserve a governor who doesn’t compromise their beliefs,” he wrote. And then, a vaguer tweet that also seemed to allude to the incident: “I will not be intimidated into a corner of silence by a group of radical Socialists and Communists whose goal in life is to dismantle America.”
Dismantle America. Two professional, clothed, adults riding together in a car, in the process of doing their respective jobs, is dismantling America.
The only upside of Foster continuing to dig this hole was that, by the end of the day, it was difficult to imagine any woman wanting to spend 15 hours in a car with him. Not alone, not with a chaperone, not for work, not for fun. He can’t be in a car with a woman doing her job? Fine. Leave him in the dust, by the side of the road.