Vice President Mike Pence made news in 2002, though no one noticed until last month. Pence invoked the Billy Graham rule about dining alone with women, and the internet had a bit of fun with the discovery.
Others came to Pence’s defense, wondering just what the problem was.
Christians are not alone in applying this concept. Ta-Nehisi Coates, an atheist, expressed the Graham Rule in terms that sound nearly evangelical:
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.
So what’s the problem?
In 2015, The Atlantic magazine published a story about congressmen with gender-based rules. Some offices were worried about optics, with the congressman being photographed with the same female staffer. Others seemed to prefer to avoid sexual entanglements. Those making the rules believed everyone stood to benefit from the policies.
In a business where face time, rubbing shoulders, and dinner meetings build relationships for advancement, growth, and mentorship, refusing to meet one-one-one with a female staffer becomes problematic. Want to prove you can strategically run an event for the campaign? Better hope you’re a man, or at least that enough others hang around 24/7. Want to staff that congressman for his policy meetings? Great – be a man; otherwise they’ll have to cycle you out every once in a while so no one thinks you’re sleeping your way to the top, or that your boss is a lech. And yes, they do that.
The Washington Post reacted to Pence’s rules, applying them to both politics and church:
It will be difficult for women to flourish in the White House if the vice president will not meet with them. Women cannot flourish in the church if their pastors consistently treat them as sexual objects to be avoided. The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but “flee from temptation” does not mean “flee from women.”
Of course, all of this assumes a very binary view of gender. While pastors probably don’t interact frequently with those LGBTQ community, Christians in business, education and, yes, politics must consider non-traditional definitions of gender. We don’t like non-binary definitions of gender, but they form part of our cultural reality.
The Billy Graham Rule also denies the reality of LGBT people. As a friend pointed out to me: 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? As with so many policies in the evangelical church, the Billy Graham Rule assumes heteronormativity, furthering the idea that people who are LGBT are people “out there,” not an essential part of the church. (Washington Post)
Title VII, which governs workplace discrimination, does not allow employers to treat people differently on the basis of certain protected characteristics, one of which is sex. This means that an employer cannot set the terms and conditions of employment differently for one gender than for the other. This includes any aspect of the relationship between employer and employees — extending to benefits like equal access to the employer.
Do women in leadership have the same Rule? I doubt it. The limited number of women in leadership means they cannot afford to eliminate private meetings with the men who dominate leadership roles. It’s easy for men to set women aside in private meetings when there are plenty of men to replace them. Women do not have the same luxury.
Perhaps we err by having men say “I don’t hang out with…” and instead should say, “As Christians, we encourage people to avoid hanging out with…” Coming from a man in power talking specifically about women, it frames the debate in terms of who gets to hang out with the leaders freely (men) and who does not. It accidentally leaves the door open for women to perceived themselves a objects of temptation instead of human beings who fail just as surely as the men do. Reframing the statement is necessary because no longer are men leading and women following; women lead (in ministry and secular roles), too, these days.
Let’s consider carefully, then, how we can mesh a truly sound concept – protection and respect of our relationships and the relationships our friends and colleagues have – with a changing legal, sexual, political and church environment. How do we give men and women equal access at work and in ministry without compromising a wise course of action? How can we work graciously with the LGBTQ community in the workplace without mentally sexualizing the relationship?
First, we must acknowledge a pernicious mindset amongst conservative evangelicals: women, as sexual creatures, present a temptation to men, and bear the larger burden for ensuring they are not a distraction. “Don’t dress like that; you’ll tempt the men.” While women can behave provocatively, we must cease viewing women as the source of temptation. The temptation is from within, as James wrote. Our application of the Graham Rule must take this changed mindset into account.
Second, we need to acknowledge the Graham Rule exists to protect everyone, not just me and my wife. The Rule benefits all people involved, and it needs to be stated as such.
Third, we need to recognize the non-sexual impact of our Rule. We usually only observe the impact from our own intent, overlooking unintended consequences. We need to look past “protect everyone” and see the “limit women” impact.
Fourth, we need to be creative, proactive, and diligent in our approach to fair business and wise ministry practices, ensuring we do not close career, employment, and advancement pathways to the opposite gender simply because we are fallen humans.
I applaud Pence’s stance; it is one Wife and I apply to our own lives. Lacking a formal leadership role, I’m not in a position to deny a woman a seat at the table, privately, and inadvertently stunt her professional growth. However, now that I see the unintended fallout, it’s my responsibility to do what I can to encourage leaders around me to make allowance for women who desire to grow and serve in ministry just as surely as I do.