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The Mike Pence rule won’t save us…but can it help us?

In the spring of 2017 the Washington Post got mainstream media pundits chortling, when they revealed that US Vice President Mike Pence had a rule that he wouldn’t dine alone with any woman other than his wife. The media hated this “Mike Pence rule” mocking it as some combination of childish and prudish. It was said to be sexist, suppressing advancement opportunities for women since they wouldn’t be able to get the same alone time with the boss as the boys.

A half year later the New Yorker ran an exposé on Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, accusing him of sexually harassing or assaulting 13 women. The publication of these accusations prompted dozens of other women to come forward with further accusations. This spawned a “#MeToo movement” with more and more women coming forward, alleging abuse at the hands of powerful men of all sorts, including US senator Al Franken, Today host Matt Lauer, storyteller Garrison Keillor, US senate candidate Roy Moore, actor Dustin Hoffman, and, just this week, the now former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, Patrick Brown. And while most of the accused admitted to at least some sort of misconduct, others, like Brown, claim to be completely innocent.

So in light of the #MeToo movement, and the enormous abuse of power it exposed among influential men of all sorts, is it time to revisit the Pence rule?

Some say no, Christians among them. A month after the Weinstein allegations came out, Katelyn Beaty, an editor at Christianity Today wrote “A Christian case against the Pence Rule” for the New York Times. In it she gave this less than flattering assessment of the rule:

“The Pence rule arises from a broken view of the sexes: Men are lustful beasts that must be contained, while women are objects of desire that must be hidden away. Offering the Pence rule as a solution to male predation is like saying, ‘I can’t meet with you one on one, otherwise I might eventually assault you.’ If that’s the case, we have far deeper problems around men and power than any personal conduct rule can solve.”

This is quite the condemnation! And yet Beaty granted that the Pence rule – also known as the Billy Graham rule, as he adopted it long before the Vice President – has saved Pence from ever facing the same allegations that were leveled at Roy Moore, Patrick Brown and others. Beaty also grants that the “Bible says a lot about humans’ proclivity to sin.”

In fact, she makes a good case for the rule before she then presents her case against: the Pence rule can be frustrating to women who know that alone time with the boss, and “the informal and strategic conversations” that can occur in that setting are “the stuff of workplace advancement.” There’s something to what she says – the Pence rule may make it harder for women to advance in some workplace settings…though a smart boss will be sure to create such opportunities other ways for valued female employees. But even if we grant the rule can cause such hindrances, so long as we live in an imperfect world, we need to acknowledge there are no perfect solutions, only tradeoffs. So then the issue is not, is the Mike Pence rule perfect? It is not. Instead we should ask, does it help more than it hinders, and is it better than the available alternatives? And in answer to that, consider:

  • A large numbers of men have been accused of, and many have then admitted to, victimizing women. The harassment or assault often occurring when they got a woman alone.
  • Other men have been accused of assault or harassment and deny it by women they spent time alone with.
  • One man has a system by which he not only would never commit sexual sin, but could never even be accused of it.
  • That man is mocked as a prude, Pharisee, fool, misogynist, etc.

The Pence rule does more than shield women from male predation, so, no, it doesn’t presume every man is a “lustful beast.” It acknowledges that sexual temptation is real, and the workplace environment involves long hours of time spent together. This rule, then, also helps both men and women avoid workplace temptation. And it serves as an assurance to their spouses. Finally, it helps protect men from false accusations. There are downsides to this rule, but it also has quite the upside.

It’s important to note that, while there is a biblical basis to the Pence/Graham rule – it acknowledges the fallen nature of men and women and the powerful pull of sexual temptation – we aren’t going to find the rule itself in Scripture. That’s why we mustn’t treat it as something sacred or something every Christian business owner must be implementing. Maybe they have their own ways to combat sexual harassment, minimize temptation, and protect against false accusations. But there is a reason that Mike Pence and Billy Graham have never been tainted by sexual scandal, even as so many others in their positions have – there is wisdom to be found here.

That said, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this rule is going to save us. As Reformed blogger Tim Challies writes:

Rules have their place, but they must never be separated from a prayerful determination to put sin to death.

Picture is modified from file by Laurel L. Russwurm. It is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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