Rayford Pence and ‘the Billy Graham rule’

Rayford Pence and ‘the Billy Graham rule’ March 31, 2017

There’s been renewed attention in recent days to Vice President Mike Pence’s scrupulous adherence to the so-called “Billy Graham” rule. This is the idea that, as a married man, he must strive to be above reproach and beyond temptation by never allowing himself to be alone with any woman other than his wife. No unchaperoned meals with a member of the opposite sex, no closed-door meetings in his office.

Graham himself famously followed this rule to protect his marriage and to protect his ministry from even the accusation of scandal. I appreciate the motivation there, but this strikes me as a troubling and inadequate way of pursuing a commendable goal.

The “Billy Graham rule” does both too much and not enough. What I mean is that such a practice only “works” for the kind of person who doesn’t need it, while for the sort of man who does need it — the kind of creepy married man looking for an excuse to cheat on his wife — it’s still too little too late.

Some of our greatest novelists spent decades in the late 20th century dissecting and analyzing unfaithful husbands. It’s dismaying that this proved to be such a major theme in American literature for so long, but since that happened, the least we could do is try to learn what people like Philip Roth and John Updike spent so much of their genius describing for us. Such authors introduced us to a seemingly endless parade of horny humanities professors on the prowl for a bit of strange. Infidelity, they taught us, is a crime of motive, not of opportunity. Those with the motive will create the opportunity — they’re obsessing over it already.

Creepers are gonna creep, and this “Billy Graham rule” won’t stop them. Rules like this don’t address the real solution to their problem, which is that they need to learn not to be creepy. That necessary lesson becomes all the more difficult if you’re following a strict practice that trains you to regard every encounter with every woman as dangerously fraught with erotic potential. It’s a practice that requires one to entertain the prospect that any and every woman is a potential sexual partner. What it commends as “vigilance” is, when it comes down to it, nearly indistinguishable from the horny obsessing of all those Rabbits and Sabbaths and other Hideous Men, in our literature and in real life.

The preoccupation with eroticizing all male-female interactions also reminds me of something from the other end of the literary spectrum — of rugged man’s man Rayford Steele, the hero of Left Behind, and his endless cruelties toward Hattie Durham. Rayford never touched her, and he and the authors of the World’s Worst Books want us to admire him for that. But Rayford also spent years thinking about how he could have touched her if he’d wanted to. He was living out all the obsessive fixation of a cheating spouse, but without ever cheating. Something about the Billy Graham rule reminds me of that. (And of Pauline Kael’s classic line about Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange — “Is there anything sadder – and ultimately more repellent – than a clean-minded pornographer?”)

Not every dinner meeting is as flirtatious and charged with erotic tension as this one.

Sarah Mimms writes in The Atlantic about how the popularity of this Graham rule in Congress is preventing many female staffers from being able to do their job.

In an anonymous survey of female staffers conducted by National Journal in order to gather information on the difficulties they face in a male-dominated industry, several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression. … These policies, while not prevalent, exist in multiple offices — and they may well run afoul of employment discrimination laws.

… Male staffers said they’d also seen some female aides barred from solo meetings with the boss, and that they benefited in some instances from the exclusion of their female colleagues in high-level meetings, at receptions with major Washington powerbrokers, and just in earning a little more face time with their bosses.

For these women, the lack of access has meant an additional hurdle in their attempts to do their jobs, much less further their own careers.

Discrimination usually tends to run afoul of discrimination laws.

And it’s not a good thing that these male members of Congress are also, in effect, shielding themselves from the contributions, wisdom, advice and expertise of their female staff. It means these members of Congress know less than they need to. I think we’re seeing the effects of that.

Mimms’ Atlantic colleague, religion writer Emma Green, doesn’t seem concerned about any of that. She’s more upset that all of this talk about the Billy Graham rule has made “Mike Pence’s Marriage … Fodder for the Culture Wars.”

That’s a remarkable way of looking at this. Apparently Mike Pence had just been ambling along, minding his own business, Mr. Live-and-Let-Live, when all of a sudden — wham! — the culture wars were imposed on him from without. This is an absurd way of framing the discussion. Mike Pence has been a culture-warrior for decades, always making a beeline to any microphone or camera before which he could make everybody’s marriage fodder for the culture wars.

The framing device of innocent Mike Pence, non-combatant dragged into the culture-wars is horribly misleading. So is this bit from Green:

Some folks — mostly journalists and entertainers on Twitter — have reacted with surprise, anger, and sarcasm to the Pence family rule. Socially liberal or non-religious people may see Pence’s practice as misogynistic or bizarre. For a lot of conservative religious people, though, this set-up probably sounds normal, or even wise.

This isn’t what my Twitter timeline looked like. I saw Pence’s Graham Rule sanctimony discussed a lot — but not with any surprise, and not by “entertainers” or “non-religious people.” I saw it being critiqued and dissected by the army of young Christian women who have, for years now, been offering a pointed, determined, whip-smart analysis of the toxic “purity culture” that infects so much of American Christianity. That critique has gotten a lot of notice in recent years. The women making that critique have been condemned, often harshly, but they haven’t been refuted.

Because they’re, you know, right.

The critique of purity culture is now pervasive in a whole generation of evangelical (and formerly evangelical) women. This is kind of a huge story. And I think it’s probably a more important story than hand-wringing over the sarcasm of comedians on Twitter. Yet those voices — the voices of thousands of Christian women coming from the same evangelical sub-culture as Mike Pence — somehow didn’t make it into Green’s piece. That’s not good.

This is why Green’s conclusion lands with such an unsatisfying clank:

These aren’t just rules by, for, and about Mike Pence. This is how he and his wife, together, have chosen to navigate their marriage. That some people are so quick to be angered — and others are totally unsurprised — shows how divided America has become about the fundamental claim embedded in the Pence family rule: that understandings of gender should guide the boundaries around people’s everyday interactions, and protecting a marriage should take precedence over all else, even if the way of doing it seems strange to some, and imposes costs on others.

Again, that ignores the voices of the many Christians who are totally unsurprised, but still angry, about this kind of harmful practice, which imposes disproportionate costs on some without actually doing much of anything to protect marital faithfulness.

It’s creepy. Creepiness is not a friend of marital fidelity.



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