Preface: My hope in writing this was not to win an argument. Re-reading it, I’m not even sure I’ve staked a flag in the ground. But having read a lot of misunderstandings on the topic today (including my own, initially), I wanted to write something to at least help increase the understanding of what the conversation is, and what it is not.
It’s not news–there are articles dating back at least to 2002 outlining some ground rules that Mike Pence has about his behavior around women who aren’t his wife Karen–but it did come to light again today after a Washington Post article about the relationship between the Vice President and the Second Lady. He won’t have dinner alone with another woman, and won’t attend events where alcohol is present without her.
Twitter, perhaps predictably, went bonkers.
Me? I remembered 2003.
I was 23, and a youth pastor at my Dad’s church, and I had just finished preaching for the main congregation. A member of my youth group, a girl who was 14 or 15, asked if she could speak to me privately. We went into the choir room to the side of the pulpit, and she began to close the door.
“Uhh… I need to keep that open,” I said, slipping past her to keep the door from closing. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her, or myself. She was a regular attendee of our Wednesday night services, and had even been on youth mission trips to help build a women’s shelter. But as the child of a pastor, these sorts of safeguards were taught to me early and often. “Avoid even the appearance of evil” was a commonly repeated phrase. It was second nature to stand by the door and at least have my back visible to passers-by as the conversation continued.
The girl proceeded to tell me that while I was preaching, God told her that she was in love with me. I resolutely and kindly told her that whatever voice she had heard, she could be certain that it wasn’t God. (Then I talked to her mother, just to make sure that there was no question as to what transpired in that conversation.)
To understand Mike Pence’s weird rules about how he interacts with women, you have to understand the background of evangelical Christianity. I’ve heard more than a few people say that Pence’s rules imply a belief that all single women are Sin Zombies, just waiting to pounce on the first unsuspecting married man who doesn’t get that door closed in time.
I’m not one to defend evangelicals on much these days, but I can tell you this: that couldn’t be further from the truth.
For me (and my Dad, and others) these sorts of personal rules always came from a place of protection, not just of one’s self, but of the woman. Sure, it prevented any false accusations of impropriety (always be a witness, and always have a witness, get it?), but it also protected women from feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable in a room alone with a man. And lastly, even if you’re not alone, be aware of the appearances. Especially if you’re any kind of public figure, people love to imagine a scandal. If my Dad had been seen at dinner alone with his secretary, it would have resulted in a solid month or more of shooting down rumors. Avoiding those situations protected him (and me), but it also protected the reputation of the women with whom we were interacting, not to mention sparing my Mom hearing a deluge of rumors or questions about her husband’s fidelity.
For me, it wasn’t that I didn’t trust women or see them as equal peers (though, yes: that is absolutely something that can be a problem in churches). And it wasn’t that I didn’t trust myself. It was just that–for people in the ministry–that above-reproach reputation meant everything. Accusations, true or false, stick like napalm in the Bible Belt: even if you eventually get it off, your persona is disfigured.
I’ll stop here and say this: if you’re from a secular or progressive upbringing, let me just say: I get why this is weird to you. But that doesn’t make it any less a very present cultural reality for us Bible-Belters (especially in rural areas).
Important Side Note: I have since come to learn that there is (or at least there was for me) some vanity involved in the almost-obsessive need to appear blameless. It was only later that I grasped one of the beautiful tenets of Christianity: none of us are perfect, and that’s the entire point of grace. We aren’t supposed to be the measuring stick, Christ is. So we all fall short, and are saved by grace. If I pretend to be without fault, how does that highlight the redemptive nature of Christ? [side note to the side note: I’m also not suggesting that we should all go have affairs right now just to prove how great God’s grace can be.]
For me, I thought that was the end of it today. “You guys, I love you, but you just don’t understand this guy’s background. This is a big misunderstanding, please do not make me defend Mike Pence today.”
But in reading (and thanks to some friends showing me some grace of their own) I am learning that there are some legitimate concerns about how this might affect Pence’s ability as an elected official to treat women with equality. For instance, would he be less likely to hire women for a role that might involve travel together? What about meetings where classified information is being discussed, and Karen doesn’t have security clearance to be in the room? Is he hearing enough women’s voices on things like, say, women’s health (a topic on which he doesn’t really have a sterling record)?
Wow, you know… good points.
I don’t know what the day-to-day life of a Vice President looks like. Having lived like this for a good deal of my early adult life, I suspect that there are enough aides and officials (Secret Service?) present in most situations that the rules could be navigated with minimal shuffling (though I’m not suggesting Mike Pence would be my first choice to put behind the wheel of that particular ship). And I was happy to hear the concerns that hadn’t ever crossed my radar before. After all, I’m a man. I haven’t ever been excluded from jobs or advancement due to my gender, so hey, maybe I don’t know everything about everything.
What I can say from experience is this: having rules like this does not, in and of itself, necessarily mean that Pence is a misogynist, or that he sees women as nothing more than Sex-Danger Flytraps. It’s quite possible that it comes from a genuine desire to protect himself, the women he interacts with, and his marriage. It’s possible. And for that reason, I think perhaps this issue is not, as a standalone issue, worth freaking out about.
Perhaps instead, we could focus on these things:
– Mike Pence has stated that working moms stunt the emotional growth of children
– Mike Pence doesn’t believe that smoking kills.
– Mike Pence ostensibly believes in Leviticus 19:33-34, but is serving as part of an administration that stridently acts in direct opposition to it.
– Mike Pence ostensibly believes in James 1:27 but stood idly by while funding for Meals on Wheels was cut.
– Mike Pence didn’t do anything when Public Broadcasting funding was cut, despite once receiving an award for being a champion of Public Broadcasting.
– Mike Pence has been honored for his work to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa (and rightly so!) but he has also doggedly worked to defund Planned Parenthood, which is, for many low-income women, their only source of women’s health care. When he was governor of Indiana, he successfully slashed public funding until PP was forced to close five locations that did not provide abortions, but did provide STD testing. Shortly thereafter, Scott county suffered a massive HIV outbreak.