There has been a good deal of attention being paid to the Vice President of the United States, and not simply because of his tie-breaking vote in allowing the states to defund Planned Parenthood. Instead, much hay is being made of a line in a profile of Mike Pence about his refusal to eat alone with any woman who is not his wife.
For some, this is a bit of joke news, a distraction from the real world of domestic policy and global geopolitics, which technically falls under the purview of ‘most powerful Vice President in history.’ For others, this is a misogynistic moment that can be seized to hasten the progress toward a society with practices that treat persons of all sexes and genders equitably, as this is a moment that reveals that in the mind of Pence, women are basically objects of sexual desire, an affront (as Rebecca Bratten Weiss rightly suggests) to the radical notion that women are persons with their own agency and capacity to consent. In this sense, Pence’s own prohibition, as Adam Kotsko puts it with oblique reference to Comrade Slavoj, is what enacts the desire to ‘to have sex with everyone you take to Panera Bread after work.’ It’s a phobia that is well-satirized in one of my favorite movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where the entire film is based off the misunderstanding that the victim of a murder was having an affair with Jessica Rabbit, except that because you can’t have sex with a toon, playing pattycake is cheating enough.
The surprise for me is that it has taken this long for hay to be made of this rule. I am, after all, what they call a ‘postevangelical,’ someone who has left the fold of evangelical Protestantism and deceives myself into saying that I never think about it anymore, when it is patently obvious to my readers, students, friends, colleagues, and enemies that I remain obsessed about evangelicalism. This rule is something that I feel like is branded into my consciousness, and I suspect that this postevangelical meditation will be relevant for those who have followed other streams of ‘young evangelicals getting high’ or secularizing.
I remember distinctly when I became aware of this rule in a rather visceral way. Shortly after my father planted an independent Bible church in Fremont, California, we started a youth group that had a committee of ‘co-workers’ drawn from its fourteen members. There were two guys and two girls, and I was one of the two guys; I was also the coordinator.
During our first meeting in our home, I did what always has been done in our home, which was to take them on a tour of the house. When we got to my room, I heard my name shouted across the house. I was called to my father’s library, where he reprimanded me. ‘Girls in your room!’ he said. ‘That is totally inappropriate!’
That was a surprise to me because that had never been a prohibition in our home before; indeed, plenty of girls had been in my room as a kid, and our family had never really been one to make prohibitions of the sort.
However, looking back on that moment, I am coming to understand it a little bit more. The whole reason, for example, that we were planting a church was because there had been some massive fall-out from a sex scandal at the previous Chinese evangelical church at which we had been. This took place in the context of no shorter than three very public sex scandals at Chinese evangelical churches that had occurred in the 1990s (which means those were the only ones we knew about), and that was within only within our private Chinese evangelical bubbles – what I mean to say is that if there was a decade for juicy public sex scandals, the 1990s gave us everything from Clarence Thomas to Bill Clinton, right on the heels (of course) of the 1987 classic Fatal Attraction.
Around this time, my father had gotten himself into researching the source of this trauma in his church life; after all, in the chaos of the sex scandal, it had fallen to him as the only clean member of the pastoral staff at the time to handle it on behalf of the team. And so it was that he enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry program at a conservative evangelical seminary mostly run by white evangelicals, and he was exposed to a whole literature that I ended up also reading because I used to practice trumpet in his study where he kept all of these books: Every Man’s Battle, False Intimacy, Focus on the Family’s Pastor to Pastor tapes with H.B. London, Jr. From these books, I learned a good deal about how evangelicals think about ‘sexual addiction’ and the propensity for every man in both the age of print media and the era of the Internet to play with themselves while fantasizing about women and then physically act on those fantasies when alone with a woman in the same room. One could conceivably make the argument, of course, that such assumptions seem less based on the Bible and more on the conduct of politicians at the time (both left and right) as well as from television and film; I learned, for example, that an ‘affair’ was not simply a business transaction while watching a rerun of Andy Griffith’s lawyer show Matlock. My father eventually ended up writing a dissertation on pastoral sexual misconduct in Chinese evangelical churches, and at the age of fifteen, I helped write a good deal of it, which meant that I too became intimately familiar with this literature.
One could say that this literature was all quite silly and that it existed in an evangelical bubble. But I suppose what I am trying to say is that we did not live in a bubble, if indeed the reason that this literature existed in the first place was because a) evangelicals, including Chinese ones, were having too many affairs, which meant b) that evangelicals were really doing nothing that was different from the characters on the stage of political theatre as well as the silver screen and the television set. In other words, there was a new urgency at this time about the so-called ‘Billy Graham rule,’ the mass evangelist’s famous rule that he would not eat alone with a woman who is not his wife in order to avoid even the appearance of scandal. There was too much fantasizing, masturbating, porn-watching, and sleeping around with naked women alone in rooms with men happening in evangelicalism (one of these days, maybe I’ll write about the two staff members who were caught by their senior pastor copulating in a Chinese evangelical church office in San Francisco), and the solution to the problem at this time was to propose the new fantasy of the Billy Graham rule to realign evangelical ethics.
While this new fantasy of ‘the strong Pence marriage because Pence doesn’t dine alone with women’ is getting politicized, it affords me a trip down memory lane as a postevangelical. The beautiful thing about the politicization is that I think it shows evangelicalism to be precisely the opposite of a bubble – it’s informed by the fantasy worlds of both political and cinematic theatre, it’s motivated by the fact that evangelical moral values are really there because evangelicals have been doing immoral things for quite some time and know it so well that they feel like they need to make some rules even though they have to ‘live by grace’ too, and there are enough of us who know exactly what rule Pence is talking about even outside of evangelicalism because we’ve all been exposed to it. But what that also shows me is that evangelicalism is impossible to escape, much as I claim to be an Eastern Catholic and others might claim to have become Latin Catholic or Orthodox or to have secularized.
Perhaps this new obsession over Pence’s dining habits are indeed – as Bratten Weiss rightly puts it – not really about Pence. They’re about the evangelical fantasies that course through our civil society and public sphere, much like the toons playing pattycake make Toontown inseparable from the Los Angeles of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?