The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Pence doesn’t dine alone with other women. And we’re all shocked.

As the second lady, Karen Pence is carving out an active role for herself in the new administration. Here's what you need to know about her. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: John Locher/The Washington Post)

The Post's Ashley Parker wrote a big, must-read profile of Karen Pence this week. And then she tweeted an anecdote to promote it:

The reaction was swift and extremely polarized.

Many on the right quickly interpreted the tweet as the media somehow being shocked — shocked! — that a conservative Christian couple would establish such boundaries. Yet again, it seemed, here was the East Coast liberal media just not understanding the values of middle America.

On the left, meanwhile, the Pences' arrangement was one that reeked of sexism and a bygone era — an impractical code in the modern age of men and women working alongside one another. And how could the vice president of the United States not be trusted to dine alone or attend parties with women without it venturing into unholy territory? Some even wondered (perhaps seriously?) whether this would prevent him from meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The first takeaway here is that we have become so snide and sarcastic on social media that even innocuous statements of fact are assigned way too much subtext. Conservative mistrust of media — however justified it is — has half the country on a hair trigger, just waiting for the latest example of bias to shoot down. Oftentimes, this bias is found in places where it simply doesn't exist.

Parker wasn't tweeting some supposedly juicy anecdote that she had learned from anonymous sources secretly chuckling at Pence's arrangement with his wife. She was paraphrasing something Pence himself told The Hill newspaper in 2002. And it came up during the 2016 campaign in stories like this one from the Indianapolis Star:

During his 12 years in Congress, Pence had rules to avoid any infidelity temptations, or even rumors of impropriety. Those included requiring that any aide who had to work late to assist him be male, never dining alone with a woman other than his wife, and not attending an event where alcohol is served unless Karen was there.
In a 2002 interview with The Hill, Pence called it, “building a zone around your marriage.”
“If there's alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me,” Pence said.

The fact is that it's interesting, because it's something other politicians — even conservative Christian ones — don't do. Or at least they don't disclose it publicly; the Atlantic reported in 2015 on female staffers saying some members of Congress wouldn't be alone with them.

And although it's certainly an arrangement that plenty of conservative Christians follow in this country, it's hardly the consensus approach. In writing about his own, similar approach during the Arnold Schwarzenegger fiasco in 2011, noted Christian publisher Michael Hyatt acknowledged that the practice was “old-fashioned, perhaps even legalistic” — but that it worked.

So it does speak to what's unique about the Pences' marriage. And in a profile about Karen Pence, it's completely relevant and tweet-worthy.

At the same time, those who are shocked not by the tweet but by the arrangement itself show how polarized we have become when it comes to evangelical Christianity — a label to which one-quarter of Americans subscribe.

Evangelicals have become more and more synonymous with conservatism and the Republican Party in recent years. It began in 2004 when “values voters” were supposed to have delivered George W. Bush his reelection win. Then last year, Donald Trump — a decidedly nonevangelical Christian who seemed to have only a passing familiarity with the Bible — took a record 81 percent of white, evangelical Christian voters. Evangelical Christians have become about as homogeneous a political group as African Americans are for Democrats and Mormons are for Republicans.

And that has pitted them against the political left. A Gallup poll in 2015, in fact, showed fewer Americans were comfortable voting for an evangelical Christian for president than for a Mormon or a gay person. Among Democrats, just 66 percent were comfortable voting for an evangelical — less than a Muslim (79 percent) and any other group except a socialist (59 percent).

(And that was before Bernie Sanders caught on, so it's fair to assume evangelicals are now bringing up the rear.)

If nothing else, the commentary from the left about Parker's tweet confirms the initial reactions of those on the right: that plenty of people in the United States simply don't understand them and have dismissed them as Neanderthals — deplorables, even. The fact that this kind of arrangement is so foreign and unthinkable to some people in this country reinforces what separate worlds we live in.

But then, we already knew that, right?