The XX Factor

What the Pence Rule Looks Like in Practice

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, are introduced at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on Feb. 24.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

We frown on literal freak shows these days, but the urge to ogle weirdos has not left us—which may explain why polite society lost its collective mind this week over a 15-year-old revelation about the romantic life of Mike and Karen Pence. A new and juicily detailed Washington Post profile of the second lady dredged up a 2002 interview with then-Congressman Mike Pence that revealed something so grotesque you won’t be able to look away: He declined to dine alone with women other than his wife, and avoided events without her if alcohol was being served.

Progressives reacted with horror and/or delight:

The answer to Jeffery’s fear is actually easy: Lists of government staffers are widely available, and in 2012, for example, Pence’s roster of 19 Congressional employees included nine women, including his press secretary and staff director, the latter of whom he made his deputy chief of staff when he moved to Washington this year. No one would call Mike Pence a champion of gender equality—he spent part of the day Thursday casting a tie-breaking Senate vote to give states permission to deny funding to abortion providers—but he is not incapable of working with women.

The Pence approach to cross-gender socializing is sometimes called the Billy Graham rule, after a guideline the popular evangelist instituted for himself and his team in 1948, when he was a handsome 29-year-old rising star who spent much of his time away from his wife speaking to adoring crowds. The question of whether it’s reasonable for a 21st-century man to avoid being alone with women he isn’t married to has by now been hashed out in 1,000 quickly cooling takes. When I asked about the Billy Graham rule on Twitter, I heard from several people who were willing to share with me what it looks like in their own lives. (Those who responded to me at length were all young pastors, as it ended up: Make of that what you will!)

“I am weak, but I can do everything I can to be wise,” said Carter Carroll, a pastor focused on children and young families at a Southern Baptist church in Tennessee. “My own community has struggled with infidelity in church leadership as well as the laity. I don’t think myself better, stronger, or holier than they are.” (All interviews were conducted by email.) Carroll tries to never be out of sight or earshot with a woman other than his own wife, who owns and operates a coffee shop. Carroll’s office has a window, and he has held lengthy one-on-one meetings there with women, which he says no one in his circles would object to. But in other settings he has made a point to make sure gatherings include at least three people; he recalled a recent meeting where he and another woman were the first to arrive, and rather than go inside together, they stood outside making conversation while they waited for the next person. He doesn’t object to mentorships between the sexes, he said, but he can see how the rule is barrier to certain kinds of professional relationships.

Marjorie Howell, a youth pastor at a church in Minnesota, said she and her husband agreed early in their marriage to avoid one-on-one meetings and dinners with members of the opposite sex. For them, it’s less about avoiding temptation and more about “optics,” especially for her as a leader in ministry. Her husband is the CFO of a startup, and they both make exceptions when professionally necessary. But even then, they try to have meetings in public, they drive separately to meet the person, and they let their spouse know what their plans are. Her boss is male, and professional Christian ministry is a male-dominated industry, but she has never felt restricted by the policy. If anything, she said, having a “rule” gives her an out in situations that start to feel uncomfortable. “I see no harm in having what my husband and I both view as healthy boundaries to protect our marriage,” she said.

Ben Marsh, a family ministries pastor at an evangelical church in North Carolina, signed a policy when he joined the church staff that suggested he avoid things like driving alone with women or meeting with women outside of the office. He thinks of the guidelines as a “broad kind of situational awareness” that helps avoid both gossip and temptation; age, levels of trust with his wife and others, and “the reality of power relationships” all play into how he approaches any particular get-together. The principles behind the approach, he said, are “transparency, mutual preservation of reputation, and a healthy recognition of one’s own temptations.” His wife, who works full-time as a patent agent in a law office, follows the same general rules. Lunch, he added, is “categorically different” from dinner, and in a previous career as a human-rights lobbyist in Washington, he often had lunch with female colleagues. He kept his wife in the loop, and it was never a problem.

Other evangelicals told me they have grown wary of the concept of making such rules, even relatively flexible ones. Pete Tegeler, a 34-year-old married associate pastor of a conservative church in Washington state, told me he began to rethink the approach when a female classmate in seminary referred to feeling like a “liability.” Strictures like the Billy Graham rule “have the huge potential to be shaming,” Tegeler said. “If I tell a woman I have to leave the door open during our discussion, or that we have to take separate cars, that tells her I can’t trust her.” Pastors often get this stuff wrong, he said, but ideally they would be able to trust themselves.

Following a rule like this religiously (ha) would be foolish and yes, misogynist. The approach can quickly become absurd: “Is it OK for married people to text the opposite sex?” the hipster-ish Christian magazine Relevant asked in February. (Nope! “Affairs don’t start with sex.”) The Congressmen who have barred female staffers from attending evening events or meeting with them in their offices should be ashamed. As Laura Turner pointed out in the Washington Post, the rule also essentially denies the existence of LGBTQ people. (“Should a bisexual person refuse to ever be alone with anyone, full stop? Should a male pastor refuse to meet one-on-one with a gay man?”) But as Carroll pointed out, these are rules negotiated between spouses as a matter of personal faithfulness; even if they do trickle down to affect the rule-keeper’s colleagues, subordinates, and friends, they are meant to help preserve that primary relationship.

Temptation and purity are concepts embedded deeply in Christian theology, and the notion of being “above reproach” is common. Many evangelical men participate in “accountability groups”—small groups that meet to pray, confess, and encourage one another to uphold their shared values. But you don’t need to be religious to tread carefully around moments of potential sexual temptation. Here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, an atheist, sounding suspiciously Pence-ian in 2012:

I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.

One reason Coates sounds sensible and Pence sounds weird is that Pence seems to have made a rigid list of no-nos, and Coates makes his “guard-rails” sound intuitive, even romantic. But another reason is surely that Pence is an evangelical Christian from Indiana and Coates is a National Book Award winner who writes for The Atlantic. For people who mistrust Pence already—and again, there are already plenty of reasons to do so!—this arrangement is just more evidence that he’s creepy or cruel.

Socially conservative politicians who are discovered cheating on their spouses earn a lot of well-deserved scorn for their hypocrisy. But this week we’ve seen that socially conservative politicians who bend over backwards not to cheat on their wives are also subject to mockery and derision. The Pences’ approach is far too onerous and paranoid for my own relationship, and perhaps for yours, too. But something is obviously working for Mike and Karen Pence, who have been married for 31 years despite the kind of high-power, high-demand career that has derailed many other Washington marriages. Pence seems to want a happy marriage, and is willing to work for it. That’s far more than can be said about his boss—a man who has proven more than willing to be alone with women other than his wives.