We Don’t Understand Pence or His Opponents

A seemingly-innocuous practice by Vice President Mike Pence has become a new cultural flash point.

At issue is Mr. Pence’s practice of not dining with women apart from his wife or attending gatherings with alcohol apart from his wife. This fact was previously known, but it has gained new prominence due to a recent profile piece written about Mr. Pence’s wife, Karen. Only one sentence in that piece referred to the Pences’ arrangement—the rest about their quite-incredible love story—but that sentence (and arrangement) has garnered all of the attention.

For many evangelicals, there is nothing controversial at all about Mr. Pence’s practice. They assume the brokenness of both human nature and the world at large. In a society in which marriages are increasingly imperiled, many evangelicals take added precautions to defend the integrity of their marriages. They are willing to suffer scorn, like that heaped upon Mr. Pence right now, for what they view as the greater good of their marriage.

Many in the cultural mainstream—mostly, but not exclusively, progressive—view such arrangements with a degree of disdain. Instead of viewing this situation through the prism of marriage, as most evangelicals do, they view it through the prism of gender and sexuality, as much of our culture does today. How might Mr. Pence’s practice advantage or disadvantage women? Isn’t he portraying women in an unflattering light—as seductresses to be avoided? Can’t he just grow up—he is the vice president, after all—and simply restrain his own sexual impulses when with other women? Some combine all three arguments.

I think a lot of this debate—like so many others—is due to a fundamental gap of ignorance between our evangelical minority and cultural majority. Evangelicals need to realize that mainstream culture is not primarily concerned with marriage, nor are they waging a war against marriage. When they hear about an evangelical’s concern for guarding his or her marriage, it comes across as latent perversion and sexual repression. When they see him refusing to dine with women alone, they see professional opportunities (like mentorship) potentially being denied women as a result.

The latter argument, especially, should be compelling for evangelicals, who believe in the inherent dignity of both men and women. Are there ways in which men can safeguard their marriages while not disadvantaging competent women in their professional field? As an evangelical, I take many of the same precautions as our vice president in my own line of work. There are exceptions—for example, certain occasions for counseling or mentoring women. In such cases, I let my wife know what I am doing, when and where I am doing it, and how long it will likely last. I am always accountable to my dear wife.

At the same time, the cultural mainstream (for lack of a better term) needs to take a breath and actually try to understand where evangelicals are coming from. Men who abide by variations of the so-called “Billy Graham Rule” are not sexual prudes, but men profoundly concerned about the integrity of their marriages. It is their value of their wives, not a patronizing attitude toward women in general, that guides their thinking. They view sexuality as a gift to be guarded, not tested.

Perhaps some points of consensus can be reached here? Marriage is in a state of crisis right now. About half of marriages end in divorce. Marriage, of all relationships, is supposed to make two broken people secure in the other’s unconditional love. When that relationship is severed, it creates disillusionment, distrust, and cynicism. Can we agree that the high divorce rates are disconcerting?

If so, perhaps we can all appreciate Mr. Pence’s commitment to his marriage, even if we don’t agree with the way in which that commitment is displayed. Don’t we want to see more people taking marriage seriously and fighting for it, even if mocked? By the same token, with a gender-inclusive workforce, perhaps we can allow for a little more flexibility in how we guard our marriages. For evangelicals in particular, the Billy Graham Rule should take the form of parameters rather than principles. Absolutes that are not codified in the Bible should give way to accountability with the same end in mind.

At a bare minimum, until we drop the warfare rhetoric that labels one side as “anti-marriage” and the other as “anti-women,” we will be stuck in heated discussions about one politician’s marital practices.