Mike Pence, Billy Graham, and why it’s not always nice to be nice #BillyGrahamrule seems "nice" but doesn't help women

I was raised to believe that my duty as a Christian included a requirement: “be nice to everyone.” A problem within the “religious” community (whatever the religion) is being “too nice.” Nice sounds nice, but sometimes, it’s not. Why? As a young adult, I realized the flaw in attempting to be nice to everyone. First, Jesus himself offended so many people that they killed him. Obviously, truly following Jesus does not necessarily mean that one has to please everyone.

That brings us to this rather delicious episode with our vice-president, Mike Pence. In a Washington Post story about his wife, Karen, one paragraph mentions that Pence will not even eat in a restaurant alone with another woman.

Pence cites what is known as the “Billy Graham rule” which many evangelical men claim to follow: never spend any time alone (even in an elevator or at a table in a crowded restaurant), with a woman other than his wife. (I love love love the headline from satirical site, The Onion, “Mike Pence Asks Waiter To Remove Mrs. Butterworth From Table Until Wife Arrives.”)

The “Billy Graham Rule” supposedly came from an incident motivating Graham’s decision to avoid one-on-one interactions with women. Apparently, Graham once found a naked woman waiting for him in his hotel bed, presumably to seduce and then blackmail him. (Search #billygrahamrule (or just click through) to read some of the fascinating and highly entertaining conversation on this topic on Twitter this week.)

billy graham rule
Billy Graham as a young preacher.

As a very public religious figure, his need to avoid being found with naked women is compelling. But why would finding an uninvited naked woman in one’s bed lead one to avoid all private conversations, or even meals, with all women?

When confronted with other naked women, could not Graham just do as he did this case – remove himself from the scene – without tarring all women with the perception of seduction? There seems to be a disconnect here. This is personal defensiveness, not real principle. And it rides on a sense of false over-niceness that is not really niceness at all. Rather, it assumes that men and women have no self-control, that men are lustful animals and women are temptresses. Is that nice? Not very.

The mention caused a social media firestorm, as the Atlantic pointed out in a helpful article this week.

As Laura Ortberg Turner wrote this week in the Washington Post, this over-niceness (and defensiveness) is not a true imitation of Jesus himself. In Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day, Jesus should not have been talking to virtually any woman, let alone the Samaritan woman he meets (alone) with at a well (as described in John 4).

Note that the text says: “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman.” Rabbis like Jesus were expected to follow the Billy Graham rule to an extreme, typically not even speaking to women, certainly not touching them or sharing their water jars.

In fact, legend has it there was a group called the “bruised and bleeding rabbis,” who had vowed to never even look at a woman other than their wives. If they saw another woman coming toward them on the street, they would close their eyes. You can imagine where their nickname came from.

Jesus, however, refused to allow such prejudices to keep him from ministering to women, and indeed, to prevent them from ministering in his name. The story captured in Luke 7:36-50 tells it all.

Jesus is invited to the home of a prominent religious leader named Simon. While he is there, a “sinful” woman comes into the dinner area and begins to wash Jesus’s feet with her tears, and to dry them with her hair.

Simon is outraged. If Jesus were really a prophet, he reasons, Jesus would know that this was a sinful woman, who no righteous man should tolerate, and would send her away. She ignores all social rules—including the one that forbid women from letting their hair down in public. She makes a scene, and Simon finds it awkward and uncomfortable. But Jesus is unperturbed by her actions, however unconventional they may be.

Jesus tells Simon, essentially, that this sinful woman is actually more righteous than is Simon himself. In acknowledging her sins, repenting, and loving, she is granted forgiveness. Simon, caught up in being respectable and “nice,” cannot acknowledge his own failings. In fact, he is perpetuating them. Thus, he cannot repent, and he does not really love.

The work we do at Empower, teaching mutuality and equality in marriage, seeks to overcome the idea that men cannot control their lust and women are nothing more than objects that incite men’s passions. The heated conversation about Pence and his efforts to “honor” his wife (while unwittingly dishonoring all women) show us that our teaching content is needed and important.

Perhaps it is time for Christians to see the hypocrisy in following “rules” that erode the full personhood of both men and women, and to instead treat one another with respect and dignity, which means that everyone is invited to the table.

Maybe instead of trying to be “nice” by chasing the impossible task of pleasing everyone, we should instead follow Jesus’ example of seeing people not as a temptation but as an image bearer of God.
Pence photo credit: Gage Skidmore Karen & Mike Pence via photopin (license)