An interview from fifteen years ago with then-congressman Mike Pence has caused an intense debate over the now-vice president’s and second lady’s marital decisions. Make that a paragraph in a Washington Post profile on Karen Pence that referenced the interview.
Here is the paragraph in question:
In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.
The Pences adopted these practices as a means of avoiding impropriety or even the appearance of it. Critics assert that there are a number of problems with such rules, none more interesting than that it is sexist.
At first I laughed off that idea, not because I don’t believe that sexism is widespread — I am less skeptical than most conservatives, in fact — but for two specific reasons. The first is that Pence has long been the whipping boy anytime secular culture has decided that conservative Christianity needed a media beating. The slightest opportunity to do so will be taken advantage of.
The second is that the careless overuse of the word by some offends my academic sensibilities. It is used, at minimum, to mean both when someone treats the sexes differently due to unfounded prejudice, and any action that may have a disparate effect on people of different sexes. Oversimplified, it is both cause and effect, what is to be explained and what explains, i.e. too often it is definitionally sloppy. I consider the first meaning — an attitude — to be sexism. The second meaning is how critics of the Pences’ practice are using it.
The argument goes that the restriction disproportionately affects professional women who, though a much larger part of the workforce than a couple decades ago, still tend not to hold high positions and are prevented from doing so when they can not be mentored or otherwise work one-on-one with someone in a position senior to their own. Other examples of cases in which women may be held back professionally could include instances in academia working with professors as students in graduate programs or in journalism when an interview cannot be conducted any other way.
Such a potential problem would probably not have occurred to me. As a man, it is unlikely to affect me personally, but it could negatively affect the careers of women, so it should be taken seriously. There are certainly ways to accommodate for both the practice and women’s professional needs in some cases, just as surely as there are some cases in which there is no substitute for one-on-one time.
The argument makes sense, but I still believe that it is wrong. The simple reason is that, whatever the obligation an individual has to the careers of others, his first obligation in this instance is to his marriage.
That granted by some of the Pences’ critics (a number of whom are quick to argue for staying out of the personal decisions of others when Pence is signing religious freedom laws, but are quick to insert themselves in debates over his own personal decisions), a further objection is raised. Namely, it is that if someone needs to set such a personal standard to protect his marriage, he does not trust the other partner in the relationship or even himself (as though boundaries and trust cannot coexist) and therefore, if he is not trustworthy, he should not hold public office.
That objection sounds silly to me, considering that Billy Graham, of all people, as well as his “close friends and associates” applied this standard to himself. The Gospel Coalition describes their reasoning succinctly:
…Graham initiated discussion with the men about problems they had witnessed among other evangelists, actions that had undermined the integrity of the gospel message, revealed hypocrisy, and ruined lives. Graham recounts the story in his autobiography:
“One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered.
“When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitment among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work.”
One of the problems was sexual immorality and it was among the things even they took steps to avoid.
But they and others who apply the so-called “Billy Graham rule” to themselves are not merely fearful of their own human weakness. They also do so to “abstain from every appearance of evil.” Not that men meeting one-one-one with women is evil (nor that the King James Version’s choice of the word “appearance” is necessarily the best translation from the Greek of 1 Thessalonians 5:22), but that there are concrete dangers to avoid even when one is trustworthy and himself acting uprightly.
Think, for example, of how Joseph became imprisoned in Egypt. God used his situation for good, but we can learn his situation that even though he did nothing wrong, the allegation and scant evidence were enough that Potiphar had him locked away for several years.
Does anyone seriously doubt that a conservative and a Christian should be careful of the possibility of the same character assassinations in the hostile environment of political media? Anything that can be construed as an appearance of evil will be. Of course, even when someone does set up a standard of conduct for himself, others will find ways to poke holes in that too.
But, though I would not restrict myself from meetings, meals and the like with women, I cannot find it in me to condemn the Pences’ decision for what is best both for their marriage and their professional reputations. And though I understand his critics’ objections, I think they are off-base.