An Anti-Modesto Manifesto

An Anti-Modesto Manifesto March 20, 2014

The other day I caught a link in my newsfeed from Jen Fitz, who linked to this post at momlife Today.

One afternoon in 1948, a young Billy Graham invited a few friends—George Beverly Shea, Cliff Barrows, and Grady Wilson— to his hotel room in the city of Modesto. There in that room, the four men decided (among other things) that to protect their marriages they would never be alone in a room or travel alone in a vehicle with any woman other than their own individual wives. The commitments they made to each other became known as the Modesto Manifesto. From that day on, Graham stated, “I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.” One of the great hallmarks of his life-long ministry is that it was scandal free. What a gift of faithfulness he gave to his precious wife, Ruth.

Bob and I heard about the practical way this man lived out his passion for his marriage when our own marriage was brand new. We decided to follow his example. We don’t follow it because we are speakers. We made the decision when we were in our 20s and working as marketing consultants with no dream of writing books, speaking, and traveling. Our verbal commitment to one another is something like this:

•We don’t go out to eat alone with someone of the opposite sex.

•We don’t get in a car or room alone with someone of the opposite sex.

•We copy one another when emailing someone of the opposite sex with personal information.

Through the years we have had friends, board members, business partners and complete strangers question our decision. But we’re stickin’ to it. (Read the rest here)

I’ll admit that I threw up in my mouth a little, and then I immediately re-read it with gleeful horror while inwardly cackling, “blog fodder! Blog fodder! So much blog fodder!”

But before I descended into my cave of snarkbloggery, I had a long-overdue and way too short hang with Martha, who actually is a totally unironic shiny happy Catholic and is therefore a positive influence in my life. She reminded me that the “Modesto Manifesto” was created specifically by people in positions of active ministry, where the whole “avoid even the appearance of scandal” thing is way more important than it is for anonymous housewives. She also pointed out that at certain times in people’s marriages, such a commitment between husband and wife could be exactly what is needed and could in fact bring a marriage back from the brink. I can see how that would be true. I imagine that if the Ogre and I were trying to put our marriage back together after infidelity, or any other significant breach of trust, such a promise would mean the world to me, and vice versa. Furthermore, it would be the height of asshattery for me to tell other people how to run their marriages, seeing as how I regularly realize that I have no freaking clue what I’m doing in my own.

But those allowances are as far as my maturity extends, so I’m gonna put my snark pants back on and climb Mt. Asshat, because are you freaking kidding me?

It’s one thing to adopt those stances because your life will forever put you under public scrutiny, or because you’ve screwed the pooch (hopefully not literally) and need to show your spouse that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to save your marriage. It is quite another thing to begin your marriage with the assumption that any person of the opposite sex is a potential temptation, and that the whole person must therefore be avoided if no chaperone is present, because the temptation might be too great.

What is this, Gone with the Wind?

Here’s the thing: I get the temptation to construct hard-and-fast boundaries around your marriage. I completely understand the sometimes visceral fear that something (or more likely, someone) will come between you and your man (or woman). I understand that fear because my recurring childhood nightmare of being chased by a monster and unable to run was replaced with the recurring nightmare of my husband falling in love with someone else shortly after our marriage. It’s a horrible fear, and the reality that it happens, and happens often, can make it feel insanely risky to just trust him or her.

A few years ago, Hallie put up a boundaries quiz for married people. We were living in utter isolation in Vegas at the time, after leaving our college-town of Dallas, where our marriage began. Drawing clear boundaries about relationships with the opposite sex was something I had never even considered, because after we moved away from all our mutual friends, the only other friends we made were also married grad students from UD. But after reading the comments, I began to get increasingly concerned. I brought it up to the Ogre, showed him the quiz, and asked if he thought we should have a conversation about drawing boundaries. He looked at me like I had transformed into a 19th century nobleman and slapped him across the face with my gloves — equal parts bewildered and affronted.

“Okay,” he said, “but why?”

But why, indeed. Lest you forget, we had two friends in the entirety of the Vegas valley. We never went out (except that one awful time), either alone or together, because we had no family nearby and no money for a babysitter. We had one car, so I stayed home with the girls while he went to work. When he wasn’t teaching classes, taking classes, or having office hours, he was at home with me. I knew his schedule like the back of my hand, because unless I called and asked him to stop at Trader Joe’s, he was home exactly 15 minutes after class ended.

But all that aside, that just isn’t how our relationship works. It never has been. We don’t set out boundaries or family rules or have lengthy conversations about hypothetical future temptations. Maybe that works for some people, but it doesn’t work for us. And here’s why:

After the Ogre’s hesitation, I returned to Hallie’s combox, a little miffed. As I read everyone else’s comments, I became convinced that the Ogre didn’t want to set boundaries because he didn’t want boundaries. So I brought it up again, more insistently. This time, he was genuinely insulted. He felt like I was randomly accusing him of harboring some secret intention to cheat on me, because I was. He got angry himself and shut the conversation down. Never one to learn from my repeated mistakes, I went back to Hallie’s combox again, re-read all the comments, and came out swinging, furious with the Ogre because I was sure that the only reason he wouldn’t want to put boundaries in place is because he didn’t want to stop cheating on me, the bastard!

Needless to say, the conversation did not end on a positive note. We didn’t really speak to each other for a few days, but my pregnancy hormones swung the other way long enough for me to forgive over a pint of Häägen-Dazs.

The Ogre didn’t apologize, because he was right. The ice-cream was a peace-offering, and I understood it as such. I’ve also come to understand through the years just how important it is that I remember who I am, and who I’m married to, and not expect either of us to suddenly become different than who we are.

It’s important to the Ogre that I trust him and have faith in him. I spent many years categorically refusing to do either of those things, and it was cruel. He’s a man worth trusting, but I ignored that fact because he’s a man. After all, men are men, amiright?

It was a really shitty way to treat my husband, and I can’t see how starting a marriage assuming that your spouse will succumb to temptation if given the chance would be any different. I would be so embarrassed if I had to explain, every time I was faced with a situation of being alone with another man, that I couldn’t enter the room because I had promised my husband I wouldn’t. I can’t imagine saying that without knowing that my husband didn’t trust me, and resenting him for it. And it would be infinitely harder for him, not to mention ludicrously unprofessional.

But even worse, it’s such a Puritanical perspective on the opposite sex. It bespeaks a mind so utterly terrified of sexual temptation that it removes the tempter rather than face the temptation.  In its own way, this “manifesto” is just as obsessed with sex as the SexySexNowNow culture we live in. The fundamental assumption is that all people with ladybits are a sexual temptation. I mean, they might also be something more, but nothing that could overcome the ever-present threat of ladyparts. Women are a sexual temptation. A stumbling block. A threat. An object.  And vice versa of the men.

I’ve talked before about the thingification of human beings, and how I believe it is the root of all sin. The “Modesto Manifesto” is just one more example of how treating people as objects has become an unrecognized and even celebrated aspect of modern Christianity. It doesn’t speak of well of a man if he doesn’t think he can ever be in the presence of a woman other than his wife without succumbing to her feminine wiles. It doesn’t speak well of a woman either. But it speaks really poorly of both of them if they insist that everyone of the opposite sex is primarily a sexual threat to their marriage.

It’s not just that it’s self-centered. I mean, it’s absurdly self-centered, but like all things that are self-centered (and here I speak from experience), it’s borne of an inversion of the love God commands us to have. He commanded us to love Him first, then our neighbors as ourselves. It isn’t loving another human being to relegate another them to the status of “sexual threat”, nor is it loving your spouse to relegate him or her to the status of “potential adulterer.” It is, however, profoundly self-loving. It’s loving ourselves in spite of our neighbors and at their expense, not the other way around.

My husband’s closest friend is a woman he’s been friends with  much longer than he’s known me. I’ve come to know and love her as well, but only because I respected their friendship at the outset. I didn’t insist that our relationship take precedence in the beginning, nor did I demand that he change the nature of their friendship one we were married. It did change, because he got married and she got married, but they’re still extremely close. On the rare occasions that we see them, I would never dream of insisting they always be in the presence of either me or her husband. It would be such a gross insult to who they are that such a thing would not occur to me. Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine St. Francis and St. Clare making such extreme rules. Or even more laughably, try imaging Jacques and Raissa Maritain, who famously had a Josephite marriage, making rules about how they couldn’t be in the same room lest they break the vows of chastity they had made! It would have been an insult to who they were to each other as “companions in holiness” to negate the goodness and holiness they brought to each other by reducing the other to a sexual threat.

People are so much more than the the sum of their literal parts. Who knows what sort of friendship you might miss giving or receiving, what lessons you might never teach or learn, or what depth of love you might never know if the hallmark of your marriage is the “Modesto Manifesto?” In reality, it’s not a manifesto at all. It’s just a set of rules that display lack of trust, lack of faith, and lack of love.


*Much to my surprise, she’s also freaking awesome and I never once want to roll my eyes in her company. Actually I have to stop myself from taking notes so I don’t go all Single White Female on her. I’m afraid after the friendship bracelet I’ve been making her with Sienna’s rainbow loom, a notebook called “How to Be Like Martha Because She’s My Hero” might freak her out a little.


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