A social media eruption has recently occurred over Mike Pence’s dinner dates, specifically that his spouse, Karen, reportedly told The Washington Post that Mike never eats alone with another woman or attends a function without her where alcohol is served.
I imagine when Karen revealed this insight about Mike she saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate what an upstanding man her husband is. My guess is that she is surprised that many find this behavior misguided, bizarre, or even misogynistic. And here is where one of our religious fault lines in America raises its head, again.
When I went to seminary in the early 1990s, I entered the evangelical world that Pence in his female-avoidance represents. I remember sitting in a classroom listening to one of my professors (all of them were men) extol his virtuous character because he refused to meet with women behind closed doors. In great detail he explained how he had windows installed in his office so that someone could always corroborate his professional interactions with women. Too, since he could readily be observed, an important safeguard firmly in place, he had successfully eliminated any sexual temptation he might experience being alone with a woman.
While there certainly are important considerations involved in a professor-student relationship, it is the unexamined implications in such a male-centric perspective that deserve more sustained attention.
And so, Pence’s behavior provides us an opportunity to explore this cultural divide where most evangelicals are probably lauding Pence’s dining practice at the same time everyone else who isn’t part of the evangelical culture is wondering what 1950s Leave it to Beaver world has sudden been unleashed on the American public as a whole.
As some have pointed out, Pence’s practice echoes what has often been called the Billy Graham Rule. Originating during a conversation between Graham, the well-known evangelist, and three of his male ministerial friends, they decided the things that tempted them the most were money and sexual immorality. Because they wanted to avoid falling into temptation, they decided to avoid situations where they might succumb to the latter. Hence, don’t eat alone with women.
The reason evangelicals are surprised by the pushback over this revelation is that chivalry toward women is regularly confused with treating women with respect. Many evangelicals think that “protecting” women from the harsh realities of the world demonstrates how much they value women. Of course underlying this assumption is that this is entirely a male perspective. Much like the meeting between Graham and his friends, they extrapolate from their experience, a rule that in their minds applies to all people, regardless of the fact that women are not included except as people to be acted upon. In other words, women are objects, mostly sexual ones. Additionally, in such perspectives, men are sexual animals who cannot be trusted to act appropriately when their male gaze moves to action.
Nevertheless, some evangelicals never acknowledge this important challenge to the culture of chivalry in part because within this world, the comfort of gender roles has been promoted as God’s design for relationships. Such so-called design enables opening of doors and a gentle guiding hand on one’s back, to substitute for the more diligent and difficult work of true equality; equality where sexist structures are identified and addressed.
This is the reason Karen Pence can believe her husband to be a morally impeccable man in how he personally treats women while at the same time disregard that he is serving a president who daily parades his misogyny and who most likely has sexually violated scores of women. Mike is praised because he intentionally avoids the temptation of un-chaperoned mingling with women while at the very same time he is commended for maintaining sexist structures. It is—rightly—a man’s world.