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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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador 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 and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • hoosier_bob

    This piece makes a good overarching point. That is, that the liberal/neoliberal order has a tendency to commodity sex and redefine marriage as a transactional institution. That is a feature of the times. And I don’t mean that it’s a feature of the past 30-40 years. It’s a feature of post-agrarian society.

    I travel a fair bit overseas, and have lived in Japan for a stint. It seems that, among people in developed countries around the world, Americans are the least willing to admit to the transactional nature of marriage and the treatment of sex as a commodity to be disposed of in the transaction. Rather, Americans often hurtle themselves into marriage in a kind of romantic blur that gives little credence to discussions of the transactional exchange that marriage in our time inevitably entails. So, couples are often left to figure out the terms of their exchange at a later time.

    As an aside, I would note that agrarian-era marriage was also transactional. The difference between then and now related to the number of terms that were meaningfully open for negotiation. The constraints of agrarian life left little room for divergent marital patterns. With the advent of wage work, we have an economy that permits divergent patterns to emerge and thrive, which means that more terms in the transaction become meaningfully open for negotiation, even if the couple is not consciously aware of it at the time of taking vows.

    I agree with Byrd’s criticism of the Pence Rule. The rule smacks of a kind of nostalgia for the constraints of agrarian life, coupled with a conscious avoidance of an honest discussion as to how to make marriage work in our times. It perpetuates the American error of blinding ourselves to marriage’s inherently transactional character.

    I was at a bar last night, and a 30-something-year-old gay man asked me if I handled divorces. I informed him that I did not. He went on to explain how he had married his partner a year ago, but that he now has no reason why he did it. I believe that every couple should read Gary Becker’s famous article on marriage. I asked him a series of questions aimed at fleshing out the transactional exchange inherent in his marriage. As we talked, it became apparent that he had given no thought to such questions, and had never even wondered whether marriage, in this instance, would lead to the more efficient allocation of goods and resources. After all, any transaction whose benefits don’t outweigh its costs is destined to lead to unsatisfactory results. Marriage works because it often produces more benefits than costs to the parties to the transaction and to society at large. If it didn’t, we would do well to abandon it as an institution.

    That’s why the Pence Rule is stupid. It leads us away from asking the fundamental economic questions that are inescapable. As Byrd notes, it’s better to ask those questions and to come forth with wise answers to them than to forego them in favor of blunt rules that echo of nostalgia and denial.

    Regarding the question of bigotry, I do believe that certain promotions of “traditional marriage” are merely dressed-up objections to the inclusion of homoerotic desires within the the discussion of the marital transaction. Research shows that very few people experience exclusive attractions in all phases (aesthetic, emotional, romantic, sexual, etc.) to members of the opposite sex. But traditional marriage was never construed as the exclusive province of the purely heterosexual. To the contrary, it was Freudian social theorists in the early 20th century who led us down the path of pathologizing same-sex attraction and viewing marriage chiefly as the embodiment of heterosexual desire. This project has also failed because it, like the Pence Rule, attempts to constrain the economic transaction involved in marriage. Worse yet, it often forces people to lie—both to themselves and to their partners—to convince themselves that they are indeed purely heterosexual and therefore qualified to enter into this new institution that Peter Leithart aptly calls pornographic marriage.

    I don’t believe that we can ever avoid the laws of costs and benefits. Couples entering into marriage need to consider the economic exchange that is inherent within any marital transaction. The Pence Rule won’t save you from economic reality, although it may help to save an otherwise poorly bargained transaction. Nor will the heterosexualizing of marriage save us from that. All in all, we’d be far better off if we accepted that people vary, and may want different things out of marriage. And we should also acknowledge that our neoliberal order doesn’t impose the kinds of constraints on options that agrarian life did. Against that backdrop, our goal is to work with people to make wise and ethical decisions upon entering into marital transactions. Nostalgia and pop psychology can only get us so far in escaping the economic realities that define the world in which we live.

    As for same-sex marriage, I’m interested to see where it goes. While I have no objection to it, I also suspect that its current prevalence is a response to the 20th-century redefinition of marriage that required parties to lack (or at least pretend to lack) any measure of same-sex attraction, whether it be aesthetic, emotional, interpersonal, sexual, etc. But as our cultural infatuation with such Freudian nonsense passes away, I suspect that we’ll see more people acknowledge that they possess certain same-sex attractions, even as they eschew the option of taking on some kind of LGBTQ social identity. I suspect that much of our culture’s current struggle around pronoun usage is merely a temporary struggle to offload the Freudian baggage of compulsory heterosexuality in favor of an ability to be more honest about the wide variation in people’s experience of attractions towards others.

    As we left agrarianism behind, the early 20th century witnessed a battle between pragmatists like George Herbert Mead and psychologists like Freud and his progeny. The psychologists won out, largely because they co-opted medical training and drafted legions of family doctors as foot soldiers in the promotion of Freudian values. Further, the Freudian answer provided an appearance of certainty in a world that seemed uncertain to many. Much of our current struggles around questions of sex and marriage has little to do with our times, in particular. Rather, they relate the convulsions we’re experiencing as we try to move past the curse of Freud and reacquaint ourselves with Mead and the fact that the complexity of our social and economic reality must always prevail over top-down efforts at social organization. Compulsory heterosexuality eased our anxieties for a time. But such authoritarianism can only last insofar as it comports with reality, particularly economic reality.

    Our 20th-century notion of pornographic marriage (i.e., marriage construed as an embodiment of heterosexuality) can no longer generate benefits in excess of its costs. That’s because its chief benefit is that it efficiently allocates social anxiety by providing a kind of faux certainty. That’s why promoters of pornographic marriage, like Rod Dreher and much of social conservatism, must constantly engage in a kind of hyperbole that keeps people in a state of agitation and anxiety. But if anxiety is not a substantial aspect of the marital transaction, then pornographic marriage is going to lead to bad results. If you’re someone who likes the certainty of the Freudian worldview, then that’s not great news for you. But for everyone else, this opens up a new opportunity to reconsider our culture’s hasty embrace of Freud and to revisit the insights of Mead and other critical realists.

  • Chris Pascarella

    When married, your relationship to the opposite sex changes. I believe that you can, to some degree, have friendships with someone from the opposite. BUT…it must never be shorn from the covenantal context of marriage. In other words, BOTH of you in the marriage should be friends with the person. How could it be otherwise? You’re in one-flesh union. If someone doesn’t like my wife, I don’t like them :) In marriage, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. Having close friends of the opposite sex is one of those things.