The recent epidemic of sexual harassment allegations against high-profile men — movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, U.S. senatorial candidate Roy Moore, U.S. Senator Al Franken and comedian Louis C.K. among them — has brought renewed attention to what is now being called “the Pence rule.”
A few months ago, Vice President Mike Pence asserted that he never eats, travels or meets alone with any woman other than his wife. No one-on-one business dinners. No after-work beers or golf games.
This rule originated long ago with the Rev. Billy Graham and others, not Pence, and it’s frequently, but not universally, adhered to by evangelical Christians.
Pence’s statement was met with howls of indignation from late-night comics, who thought Pence a prehistoric prude, and working women, who said that such a rule could put women at an unfair professional disadvantage because it limits their legitimate access to male coworkers and bosses.
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According to a column in the New York Times, though, after the eruption of men-behaving-wretchedly revelations, some evangelical leaders have responded with a communal, snarky “we told you so.”
Which is to say that, in their opinion, if everybody just followed the Pence rule, these harassment travesties probably wouldn’t happen as often, because the harassers wouldn’t have as many opportunities to act out.
One thing that has struck me in this back-and-forth is that Pence’s critics seem to misunderstand the religious thinking behind the Pence rule.
Besides considering Pence a prude, his critics have made two main assumptions.
First, some of them say his rule excuses men’s bad behavior. It implies that boys are just so sexually revved up they can’t control themselves around women unless there’s a chaperone present to restrain them.
Second, some say the rule casts women as temptresses eager to seduce any man they can lay their mitts on.
I think both criticisms are mistaken.
For the record, although I’m an evangelical, I don’t follow the Pence rule.
Instead, I try to follow plain common sense.
I try to be circumspect in my dealings with women. But sometimes you need to meet alone with a female colleague or parishioner, in or outside the office, just as you do with a male colleague or parishioner. I keep such meetings friendly and relaxed, but professional. Period.
That said, I understand the logic of, as the Scripture might put it, not giving the devil an opportunity.
That’s what the Pence rule is really about. It’s not about excusing men’s supposedly uncontrollable libidos or painting all women as cubicle-hopping Jezebels.
The thinking behind the rule is more nuanced.
True, I don’t know what Pence himself is thinking. For all I know, he could be thinking exactly what his critics suspect.
But that’s not the thinking behind the rule as it’s generally followed by evangelicals.
The larger thinking goes like this.
Marriage is the foundation of a healthy society. It was the first institution established by God, and it predates the church itself. Marriage is holy. It’s a sacrament.
Therefore, we should make all reasonable efforts to safeguard our marriages.
The problem is that the men and women who enter into marriages are flawed and silly and fallen, because they’re members of a flawed, silly and fallen human race. That includes Christian men and women just as much as non-Christians.
Because husbands and wives are imperfect, their marriages will be imperfect. From time to time, nearly all marriages will grow stressful. Or volatile. Or boring.
Thus, if you’re married, it’s not wise to spend too much time alone with that work buddy of the opposite sex. He or she might also be going through a rough patch.
And, as the saying goes, misery loves company. Sometimes misery loves company in all the wrong, sweaty and heart-thumping ways.
Nearly everybody reading this has watched folks in the very office where you toil today start out as colleagues only to cross over into an affair that created unholy havoc.
These affairs didn’t happen because all men are slobbering wolves or all women are conniving seducers.
They happened because we’re all humans. And therefore we’re not to be fully trusted. We can’t even trust ourselves. If we’re smart, we guard ourselves from ourselves.
Another dimension to the Pence rule is this.
As Christians, we’re warned to abstain from the very appearance of evil. Even if your relationship with an opposite-sex coworker stays platonic, office gossips will vilify you as adulterers if you socialize together too much. That, too, can create problems.
I find the Pence rule largely unworkable given the realities of contemporary work and worship, but I must say that — this might be the only time I’ll defend Mike Pence for anything — it does originate from a reasonable place.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.