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On the Pence Rule

May 3rd, 2018 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

In Hannah Coulter Wendell Berry tells the sad and predictable story of the divorce of Marcus and Margaret Settlemeyer. The two marry after finishing school at the University of Kentucky and quickly move to Louisville to get work as teachers, both having finished education degrees.

But Margaret’s mother, Hannah, is concerned. She’s not concerned about Marcus though; she’s concerned about the daily life that will define their early marriage. They are starting with nothing, Hannah notes, and because of the costs of living in Louisville and the lack of family they have there to say nothing of the lack of land or productive property, everything they have will have to be bought with money which, of course, means that both will need to become employees not only out of love, but out of necessity.

Berry tells the story of what happened next:

She and Marcus were working in different places, going off every morning in opposite directions. They worked apart, worked with different people, made friends with different people. What they had in common to hold them together were [their son], their house, and the weekends. …

Marcus had fallen in love with another woman. A younger woman, of course, one of the teachers in his school. It had happened, Marcus said, because ‘it wanted to happen.’ Not because he wanted it to happen, of course. He had rented an apartment, and that day had moved out of the house. He had asked for a divorce.

Then shortly after Hannah observes:

Marcus, in fact, had been pretty well what the recipe called for: handsome, smart, well-mannered, from a nice family, a promising young man in every way. So how come he ended up leaving his wife and boy, talking about ‘fulfillment’ and his ‘need to be free’? ‘It’s the time,’ I thought. ‘The time wants men to be as silly in character as they are by nature.’

Here is my point in sharing this excerpt: The world we live in is one radically hostile to marriage traditionally understood. This is obviously true today as we have quite literally redefined marriage and now widely see allegiance to the traditional view as evidence of bigotry.

But we had actually redefined marriage even before the sad Obergefell decision. We redefined it in the post-war era when we consented to an emerging economy which trivialized the home, removed the shared work to be done in it that bound together husband and wife and instead encouraged first husbands and then wives to make of themselves wage slaves, doing productive work for someone else in another place besides their own.

Point being, cases like the fictional one of the Settlemeyers are not unusual or terribly surprising: What we have done to marriage makes them almost inevitable in many instances. And so in the 1950s when a young evangelist recognized how his marriage would be subject to this same severing of work and home, he took steps to try and protect that marriage, steps which we now know as the Billy Graham Rule and which, in more recent days, have been labeled the Mike Pence Rule.

To be sure, at its worst the rule confuses a kind of mindless adherence to law for the practices of a virtuous marriage. And, certainly, in our current economy, in which we are alienated from the home economy to the point that the latter has ceased to exist for many people, the Graham/Pence rule can make work more difficult and have a regrettable effect on the ability of women to advance themselves professionally. All of these things I understand. Indeed, I myself do not practice the Graham/Pence Rule and were I ever to become a manager of employees that required regular meetings with my staff, I would not practice it then either. Yet all the same I am disturbed by the scornful ways that many have talked about the set of prudential practices that some men (and, presumably, women) have adopted to protect their marriages in an economy that is in most of the important ways set against them.

Moreover, it appears to me that the best alternatives I have seen to the Pence Rule actually are much more strict and harder to apply than the Pence Rule. Tish Warren’s rightly praised piece for Christianity Today describes the practices that she and her husband have adopted to protect their marriage. When I asked Tish about this on Twitter, her response was that in practice it is not as strict as one might think based on the principles described. It often is just a quick remark, “hey, I am getting coffee with such-and-such today.” But I rather suspect that the reason their practice has become so informal is simply because they have an especially good marriage and so much that might in other relationships need to be more formal can simply be handled briefly and informally, such is the health of their relationship. Moreover, I am not sure that a couple with different career paths—Tish and Jonathan are both Anglican priests in the same congregation—could implement Tish’s proposals as effectively as she and Jonathan have.

The other common response I have observed to the Pence Rule discussion comes from Aimee Byrd, author of the forthcoming Why Can’t We Be Friends? Here is Byrd responding to the Bill Hybels story and particularly to those conservatives who say the Hybels story vindicates the Pence Rule:

Many respond that we all should follow the so-called Pence Rule, named for Vice President Mike Pence, who never eats alone with the other sex or drinks any alcohol at events that his wife does not attend. To this rule Christians have added other prohibitions, such as sharing a car ride or an elevator, or even sending a text message to the other sex without some sort of chaperone. As one tweet put it, “Only friends around witnesses. Pence Rule does work.” Will this really stop abusers? Will it curb sin? And what does Scripture teach us about how to relate to one another?

By putting up fences, we foster an individualistic, self-protective morality. As Richard Bauckham writes, fear-based measures send the message: “My responsibility for others is purely negative.” This message is antithetical to our Christian anthropology, wherein we are created for eternal communion with the Triune God and his people. The Christian message is not “Friends only with witnesses,” but rather, “Friends promote holiness.” We need to protect one another from abusers, not from godly friendship. That likely requires case-by-case boundaries, promoting the exercise of wisdom in different circumstances, rather than coercion both from predators and from imposed moral systems. The church should model real friendship, as well as call out predators. An expanded Pence Rule, with its basis in fear, won’t help us develop the discernment to know the difference.

As is often the case with evangelical practical advice on day-to-day matters, it offers mostly unobjectionable counsel without ever acknowledging the physical conditions in which people live. Put another way, Byrd seems to assume the answer to “why can’t we be friends?” is a fear-based piety that manifests itself in the Pence Rule. Perhaps. But what I have never seen Byrd address in all the things she’s written on this topic is the point Berry raises above. And, we should be clear, it isn’t just Berry. Noah Smith made much the same point in a thread on Twitter yesterday: modern economies liberalize norms around sex.

Why can’t we be friends? Well, we can in a limited sense. But why do we need smart prudential practices like either the Pence Rule or something like what the Warrens do adapted to a couple’s circumstances? Because we live in a world radically hostile to marriage not chiefly on an ideological level, though that is true enough, but on an economic level. The material factors of daily life in the modern west undermine the strength of marriage. In a world of weaker marriages, something must exist to protect them. And quite often that something has been the Pence Rule. In the grand scheme, that’s probably a good thing.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).