This week, I was surprised to see commentators pouncing on a single sentence in a recent Washington Post profile of Karen Pence, Vice President Pence’s wife: “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.”
Pence’s policy is standard operating procedure in some Christian circles. It even has a nickname: the Billy Graham rule, attributed to the evangelist who made it his personal, pious policy to avoid traveling, eating or meeting alone with women.
For critics of Pence, the Billy Graham rule suggests a sexist attitude that threatens to reduce women to lusty sex objects and shut them out of professional development. (“Married men,” Jezebel asked, for instance, “when is the last time you dined with a woman who was not your wife and did you [f—] her?”) It’s difficult to know what Pence’s reasons are for sticking to this rule of thumb. What I do know is why my Grandpa, a 92-year-old retired Protestant pastor, adhered to this rule in some fashion. I know because he tells me this with pride — but not with the alleged sexism that’s earning Pence so much condemnation. In fact, the way he approached his relationships with female colleagues helped to support the women he worked with rather than to demean them.
Grandpa spent his career in congregations across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois as an associate pastor by choice, a minister focused on youth education and music, whose job was to support the church’s senior leadership. The era of his ministry he most likes to discuss is the time he worked as an associate to a female senior pastor in the 1970s and ’80s — a time and place in which that kind of arrangement was fairly uncommon. When he reflects on their partnership, he says the same things he says about men he worked under: “She was very intelligent,” or “She was a fine Christian.”
Grandpa didn’t completely disavow private meetings with his superior — how could he? — but in his role, he believed avoiding any whiff of impropriety helped to support and elevate the woman in charge. For him, staying away from closed-door meetings or private get-togethers with female co-workers wasn’t a case of wanting to avoid being alone with a woman colleague due to a deep-down certainty of his own uncontrollable lust. Rather, he wanted to spare his boss any personal discomfort, as well as any potential public misperception that their time spent together was anything other than purely professional. This might seem quaint, if not also indicative of a problematic culture. But it was, at the very least, not rooted in any salacious attitude toward women.
Fellow progressives eager to disparage Christians they imagine must be closet perverts fail to recognize another type of believer: the person who thinks very little about sex, especially in the workplace. For these Christians, setting up boundaries around working relationships is a way of keeping sex — or even the appearance of sexual interest — out of the question, so the real work can get done. It’s an imperfect solution, but it’s one rooted not in negative attitudes toward women but rather the still-rampant examples of sexual harassment and gender bias in the workplace. In some ways, it’s a guideline meant to combat sexism more than perpetuate it.
If I was fortunate to grow up a pastor’s grandkid on both sides — my other grandfather was a theology scholar and Greek professor — I was especially blessed not to be raised by people terrified of their own sexuality or mine. I don’t remember ever being told (and certainly didn’t internalize the prejudiced paranoia) that men are naturally lustful or that women are all temptresses. Instead I learned that it is righteous to serve those who have less: to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, and to provide fellowship to the lonely. These are the (genderless) values my grandparents and I live by. They don’t come from a sexist place, and though they don’t require one to observe the Billy Graham rule, they don’t prevent one from doing so if it helps maintain a professional climate in the workplace, or keeps one’s colleagues safe from rumors, suspicion or far worse. It is possible to be a person of faith, to equally value and respect people of all genders, and to create safe spaces for all without diminishing anyone’s choices, simply by leaving a door open during a meeting or dining in groups.
It’s true that Pence’s policy may radically limit those who can meet with him, which is unprofessional, if not perhaps skirting some limits of the law. And it’s also the case that being a pastor, though it is a public-facing job, is different than being an elected official. But there’s also some merit to the idea that men in power should consider how their actions appear, let alone how their actions could cause potential or actual harm to the women they work with.
I am not defending Pence so much as I am trying to defend everyone’s right to not be mocked for being moral in their own way. I find Pence’s views on same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, and how we as a nation minister to the poor to be repugnant ideas that give mainline conservatism a gross reputation. Further, Pence currently serves at the behest of a confessed abuser, whatever cloak of belief he chooses to wrap around that choice. I grew up in Indiana, and I am horrified and ashamed by how [former Indiana governor] Pence’s extremist policies have allowed flagrant discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community to flourish and exacerbated a preventable HIV outbreak. These are inexcusably harmful political and personal choices, but those fearful of Pence’s influence on the national stage should focus on his biased lack of leadership when it comes to basic human rights, including the health and safety of all Americans. That he observes the Billy Graham rule may be the most moral thing about him, not the least.
My Grandpa isn’t going to have the opportunity to influence others with his ever-evolving progressive values much longer. His age means he’s often tired. But his strong tenor still carries, and when he’s asked to sing at funerals, he graciously obliges. And every evening before bed, he prays for the nation’s leaders and asks God to guide their decisions.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Billy Graham as “the late evangelist.” Graham is still living.