Mike Pence and the Cultural Rorschach

By Jeff Laird

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First, this is not a new idea. The principle of a man never being alone with an unrelated woman, other than his wife, is part of an Evangelical approach often called the "Billy Graham rule," though its basic principles predate even Graham. Pastors, businessmen, salesmen, and others — of both genders — have been adhering to these kinds of boundaries for many a decade. In some medical, educational, and legal settings, the "no men alone with women" rule is actually mandated.

This is also old news for Pence. The initial "reveal" was way back in 2002, so this has been going on for at least 15 years. If this was latent (or blatant) misogyny on the part of Pence, one would expect parallel evidence. But we find none. He continues to place women in positions of trust and authority, where they communicate with him on sensitive and important topics on a regular basis. For instance, Pence's director of public engagement is Sarah Makin. His Deputy Chief of Staff is Jen Pavlik, who was also his director of operations while governor of Indiana.

More compelling, as far as this specific issue is concerned, is that at least two former employees, Ericka Andersen and Mary Vought, have publicly stepped out to debunk the notion that Pence's policy in any way hindered their careers. Also worth noting: more often than not, he doesn't spend significant time at dinner alone with male staffers, either.

Second, the fact that there's a mob-social-justice morass drumming up angst over this news is exactly what makes Pence's approach not just understandable, but almost necessary. American politics is flavored by serial predators like Bill Clinton, sleazy creeps like Anthony Weiner, and proud adulterers like Donald Trump. On top of it all, our culture spins tiny breezes into tornados of controversy and accusation. Why be surprised when politicians choose to draw lines in order to protect themselves from those risks?

Even editorials attempting to prove that Pence is hurting women admit there's an intimidating cultural bias, felt by men, when it comes to female co-workers. According to one such article, research shows some 3/4 of men are worried about being accused of sexual harassment, and nearly 1/3 had co-workers doubt the legitimacy of their opposite-sex friendships. Those concerns, in no small part, are inspired by the same hyperventilating, micro-aggressed, scandal-seeking attitude driving the present hullaballoo.

In other words, the same social structure which looks for any and every reason to accuse men of misogyny, sexual harassment, or impropriety is now shocked — shocked! — to find men choosing to proactively avoid situations which could fuel such speculation.

The better question is this: in an environment where one wrong word, or one wrong look, can be milked for hours of slander and media accusation, why wouldn't everybody follow some version of this rule? Shouldn't any politician's primary concern be their marriage, and their conscience? And why are so many people so offended by the idea — not even the rules themselves, but just the idea that someone would consider such rules in the first place (John 15:18-19)?

To be fair, any policy dealing with gender needs to be carefully considered. There's nothing wrong with inquiring whether or not Pence's actual application of this rule has a negative effect on female employees' careers. If it's possible to follow the rule while providing women the same mentoring, employment, and networking opportunities as men, that is exactly what a man like Pence ought to be doing.

Some are expressing concern that this kind of rule could be mis-used, or abused, in a way leaving women on the outside looking in. That's a legitimate point to consider. A man's general refusal to hire, promote, cooperate, or meet with a woman — even with an appeal to the Billy Graham rule — would be a situation worth criticizing. Seeking to avoid that problem is appropriate motivation to critique Pence's stance, in a reasonable way. Meaning, without the Freudian outrage or insipid, ignorant mischaracterizations.

As it turns out, when it comes to Vice President Pence, his back history, and the well-defined way in which he's using the rule, such concerns are easily allayed.

The truth is that men like Vice President Pence do not fear women. They don't live in terror over their own lack of control. They don't see women as incorrigible seducers who cannot be trusted. Nor do they hold any of the other asinine, immature caricatures with which Mike Pence's critics have smeared him and other conservatives over the last few days.

Men who guard their own hearts, and consider the power of assumption, do, however, respect their female co-workers. And their own wives (Ephesians 5:28). While they recognize their right to act freely (Romans 14:2-4), without being judged by the consciences of others (1 Corinthians 10:28-30), they understand how quickly people misinterpret what they see (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Timothy 3:2), especially in a culture which treats sex as a cheap commodity. They take steps to steer clear of unnecessary temptation (Proverbs 16:17; 1 Corinthians 7:2), knowing full well that most family-crushing affairs start off as innocent interactions. They follow their conscience, for the good of their family first, even if the world does not agree (Romans 14:22-23).

Secular or Christian, male or female, Republican or Democrat, it's possible to disagree with the specifics of how Mike Pence chooses to avoid scandal and temptation. It's even reasonable to discuss how, or if, he should be applying such rules, at all. What's not reasonable, from anyone, at any time, is to suggest that such a choice speaks poorly of the man's character, faith, or respect for women. Whether it would be our choice, or not, a man who honors his marriage and his reputation, and the reputations of his co-workers, ought to be given at least an iota of respect.

Image Credit: Name; untitled; Creative Commons

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Published 4-4-17