Mike Pence and the Liberal Moral Police

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American Vice-President Mike Pence set commentators across the cultural spectrum all a-twitter this past week as it emerged that he had observed for years what quickly became known as the “Billy Graham Rule”: he refused to dine or otherwise be alone with a woman in any context in which the relationship could be misinterpreted.

The young preacher Billy Graham had adopted this rule (alongside strict financial accountability) under the shadow of “Elmer Gantry,” the Sinclair Lewis novel (later made into a sensational 1960 film) about a cynical and predatory travelling evangelist. The rule kept Graham out of trouble for decades even as journalists watched him like hawks.

Mike Pence has been married for over thirty years in a profession that, like Graham’s, is peculiarly fraught with opportunity for misbehaviour. Yet critics exploded over this marriage-protecting guideline.

The more preposterous tried to damn it as “rape culture.” Moderates shook their heads about how such a rule would continue to marginalize women professionally, sexualized what should be just day-to-day routines, etc., etc.

(Happily, at least a few commentators kept their heads.)

What was also interesting about this furore, however, was the complete lack of moral relativism exhibited on every side.

And the complete invisibility of Mr. Pence’s wife, Karen.

Fifty years into the Sexual Revolution, it appears that consenting adults can do anything they want with each other—except adopt lifestyles that are more conservative than their critics would approve.

Fifty years into feminism, any woman whose career might theoretically be compromised by Mike Pence’s rule can freely condemn him while ignoring the welfare and wishes of the woman who, his marriage vows attest, is supposed to be his chief concern.

In the name of maximum freedom for all, an ugly underlying selfishness is exposed. What really matters is what matters to me, or might conceivably matter to me.

I don’t care, so the buzz seems to be, about Mike Pence’s concern to protect his reputation in a career dogged by paparazzi and TMZ-type scandal-mongers.

I don’t care about Mrs. Pence and how she feels as her beloved has to go to one more glamorous event without her, on one more road trip without her, or to one more high-intensity meeting without her—each an incubator for illicit feelings and the actions that can result.

I don’t believe in moral relativism after all. I don’t believe in “Do your own thing” or in chacun à son goût.

I’m instantly ready, in fact, to shove my religion down your throat, or at least in your ear, at the first sign of my rights—nay, my privileges and even possible career opportunities—being compromised.

I disagree with Vice-President Pence on at least a hundred things. But you’d expect that I would, since I’m a Christian, and we Christians are known, even notorious, for our insistence on objective right and wrong.

But what about the sophisticated freedom-lovers in our society? What about the vaunted moral relativism of the Sixties to which we are all supposedly heirs?

Not much of that about, these days.

“Do your own thing” has become “Do what I insist must be everyone’s thing.”

And liberty shrinks a little further amid all the finger-pointing.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).

2 Comments

  1. I understand what you're saying, John. It seems inconsistent, at best, to proclaim freedom on the one hand, while expecting to control someone else's behavior on the other. I wonder, however, would you be willing to comment on the underlying perspective of gender relationship (or non relationship) that the "Billy Graham Rule" implies? My specific concern is for an assumption of women as inherently "dangerous" and the assumption of men as essentially unable to control themselves. I realize that there is added pressure on public figures, and the constant threat of scandal (real or press-implied)... but I do feel that responding with strict separation is a fear-based response that robs us of the theological richness of a humanity made "male and female" in God's image. Thoughts?

  2. Excellent. Thank you for writing this.