Mike Pence, The Billy Graham Rule, & Mixed Gender Friendships

BG rule

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Sometimes the quirks of evangelical subculture becomes fodder for inside jokes and on better days, helpful critical analysis within the subculture. But recently, one particular feature of evangelicalism has made its way into public consciousness, a habit called the Billy Graham Rule. Named after the famous evangelist, the rule is Graham’s self-imposed standard that he should never spend time alone with a woman without his wife present, in order to avoid temptation and compromise integrity. Mike Pence, the VP of the United States, seems to have adopted the rule when he told the Hill he won’t eat a meal with any other woman besides his wife.

Many have pointed out, rightfully so, the sexism ingrained in the BG Rule, that diminishes men’s moral agency and reduces them into lust-filled creatures who view women as sex objects. The BG rule also acts against women by preventing access to high level meetings and building professional connections in the workplace.

However, what frustrates me most about the BG rule used by grown ups is that living by rules is still the framework that dictates ethical living. I often feel as if evangelical adults do not move past the developmental phase of differentiating. As long as rules are in place to make your daily life decisions, one never needs to develop the ability to discern for oneself whether those choices are good and healthy given the vast diversity of individual circumstances. It is as if these adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, still live as children and teens who need to be told exactly what to do with rules and guidelines.

The BG rule maybe good and right for a specific person, during a specific time or season, with particular people and contexts. Mature, thinking adults should be able to discern for each of themselves when and how to spend time with mixed gender company in a variety of situations. Applying a strict rule and then publicly announcing it comes across as immature, which is why I believe Mike Pence was ridiculed for it.

So then, what does it mean for those of us parenting children and teens, trying to raise them into adults who have a healthy way of navigating mixed gender relationships in the world?

First, I’d say that rules aren’t necessarily bad. They act as scaffolding to prop our children up to protect them while they are growing and maturing in their decision making faculties. So if a mother makes a rule that her 12 year old girl may not have sleepovers with boys, there may be good reason for this. But scaffolding is meant to be taken off eventually, and rules should bend as the children grow and eventually broken if need be. Unfundamentalist parenting is to raise children who are rule breakers, not rule followers—not to wreak havoc, but to subvert unjust systems that hurt people. 

What we know today is that gender exists on a spectrum, and people exhibit different expressions of gender, identity, and orientation. Heteronormativity and sexism are systems of oppression that harm women and the queer community. We need to raise children who are respectful of the humanity in others regardless of their gender, identity or orientation, and we also need to be vigilant against the messages in society which challenge that.

In parenting, this means we listen to what our children are saying, whether the narrative they are internalizing from the wider world is dehumanizing to people. Playground taunts that generalize and demean, “girls are snotty,” or “boys are perverted,” which come home via the children are opportunities to reinforce, “boys are human, girls are human, we’re all just human.”

When sticky situations arise like whether your high school son who is dating a girl wants to go out with another girl who is only a friend, or whether co-ed Spring Break trips should be allowed without adult supervision, it may be appropriate for a parent to institute a rule and demand it be followed, but always the end goal is to raise kids into adults with moral agency of their own. Always, the rule should be undergirded with discussion of who it is we are calling our children to be? What kind of person are they becoming?

Because those who follow rules end up digging their heels in outdated ideology, but adults who learn to become people of deep moral character will have the capacity to expand in love, inclusion, and imagination.

I asked my son what he thinks about his Dad going out to dinner with another woman without me. He says, “I think it’s okay if she’s just a friend and you know about it.” At ten years old, he can already view a woman as a human being instead of a threat, as well as understand the importance of honesty in a marriage. I say this not to brag, but, uh, what the heck, YA I SAY THIS TO BRAG. He gives me hope that it is possible to raise the next generation to develop healthy relationships with mutual respect for all along the vast and beautiful gender spectrum.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Brandon Roberts

    i have plenty of female friends so platonic friendships between men and women are possible. and not gonna lie i don’t care if pence only eats dinner besides his wife

  • Linda Davidson

    Thanks for fleshing out the consequences of the BG rule.

  • 92JazzQueen .

    This isn’t about female friend and male friend relationships, but the fact that as a boss you also have to be considerate of how you can end up in a position where it’s easy to forget that you have to still adhere to your boundaries. I think the reason why people are so antagonistic to this rule is because they ironically think that condemning everything conservative makes them more progressive. They don’t think that maybe there is some truth to the fact that men or women can be tempted in situations where no one can see them.

    • John

      Agreed. BG made a rule for himself to avoid any appearance of compromise. There was a time when that was seen as wise, but no longer. Too bad that MLKjr didn’t have that rule and he could have avoided some compromising situations. This is just progressives expressing total disdain for anything conservative. A total misread of BG and a mischaracterization that this harms, degrades or keeps women down. A poor piece of opinion indeed.

  • Julia Bishop

    Thank you for your perspective and desire to encourage and educate. With two college-aged daughters, I’m getting daily educated on the perils of and misunderstanding of heteronormativity and sexism. I have so much to learn and undo. You go ahead and brag!! Yay!! Raising ’em well my friend!

  • Barry Lillie

    I don’t want to burst your bubble, but men are “lust-filled creatures who view women as sex objects.” Now, women are considerably more than that, but that doesn’t change the biology. To think otherwise is to engage in a kind of Gnosticism where we deny the body in favor of the mind…

    • Monala

      So women are more than sex objects, but men *aren’t* more than lust-filled creatures who view them that way? That’s a pretty low opinion of men. Men spend all their waking hours lusting after women, of whom they view 100% as sex objects? Really?!

      • Barry Lillie

        Never said that. Just want to point out that at no time is the sexual difference completely out of the picture. Never.

    • http://thethreews.wordpress.com/ Ken Leonard

      I’m sorry that you feel that way.

      That’s your character defect, though. Don’t try to pin it on the rest of us.

  • Andy

    It may be called a BG rule, but really it’s just some chap’s policy that might stand him in good stead one day, isn’t it? As a single parent I was advised to adopt a rule that I shouldn’t let my daughter have sleepover without having an adult female friend there too. Not because there’s anything immoral about the sleepover or dodgy about me for that matter, but so I couldn’t make myself vulnerable to any suspicion or criticism. Pence is very high profile and under more surveillance than me. Perhaps the fact he has to have that policy is sad but it’s a sad old world.

    • tt

      You are dealing with children. That is a different set of issues. Pence is dealing with grown adults often in a professional setting.

      • Andy

        Sadly that makes no difference, many innocent men have been falsely accused of wrong-doing by women.

  • Dorothy Esau

    I heard about Billy Graham’s policy (for himself) decades ago and I do not believe it was for any other reason than to protect himself and his message against rumours that could be spread about a very public figure. It wasn’t because he didn’t trust himself. Mike Pence’s version is his own issue.

  • Wheezy1952

    I’m more concerned with Pence being (figuratively) in bed with a narcissistic pathological lying sexual deviant.