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The problem with “don’t eat alone with women”: good character is better than strict rules

An evangelical university professor on the controversy around Vice President Mike Pence’s rules of conduct.

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Several years ago, a male colleague and I left a meeting on one side of campus at the university where we both teach to return to our offices, a 15-minute walk away. Since I had driven my car to the meeting, I asked my colleague if he’d like a ride back. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, he politely thanked me and said no.

Walking to my car, I suddenly realized I’d just had my first encounter with the “Billy Graham rule,” a concept highlighted in recent news as a result of reports of Vice President Mike Pence’s longstanding principle of not having meals alone with a woman or attending events serving alcohol unless accompanied by his wife.

The rule, famously articulated by the evangelical minister Billy Graham, is basically a guideline that says men and women should not meet alone, whether in offices, or cars, or other places in order to avoid illicit temptations or appearances of impropriety. It’s been adopted by other evangelical pastors and leaders (a history of its origin is here): The late founder of the evangelical university where I work was known for saying that he’d pass by a female member of his church walking in the rain if he were alone in his car to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Once I realized why my colleague had turned down my offer, I felt a twinge of embarrassment and awkwardness, as though I’d invited him to a game of strip poker instead of a three-minute ride to the other end of campus. Besides, I thought in an imaginary retort, “I’m just not that into you.”

But the good part of this story is that despite working for nearly two decades at an evangelical university, I’ve had only two or three such encounters with the Billy Graham rule. While I have tremendous respect for men who place their marriages before their work, such a rule befits the world of Mad Men more than the modern-day work world where women are to be treated as equals. But even more importantly, good character is even more trustworthy than the most well-intentioned rules.

Virtue ethics is better than the Billy Graham rule.

Virtue ethics relies on moral character that is developed through good habits rather than rules or consequences for the governing of behavior. Aristotle defined virtue as the mean between two extremes, one of excess and one of deficiency. It is a habit of moral character, which, because it is a habit, becomes a kind of second nature. As Aristotle explained, it does not depend upon rules.

Despite decades of working at evangelical institutions, I haven’t encountered the Billy Graham rule all that often

Although I had grown up evangelical, I had never heard of the Billy Graham rule until well into my 30 years of professional life, most of it ministry- and church-related. I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of men in educational, political, and church contexts, some of that time one on one: discussing a book proposal over lunch, talking politics over coffee, traveling overseas to meet with foreign leaders, and having many closed-door meetings with male colleagues, male bosses, male students, and men under my supervision.

In fact, my first secretary was a man. I was an administrator in a church-run school, and we spent a lot of time in close proximity, our two desks jammed into an office that had been built to hold just one person. Our little office was a busy place where a steady stream of students, parents, and teachers, flowed throughout most of each day. Still, we spent a lot of time alone together, man and woman, each of us married to other people. Somehow we managed to do our jobs without having an affair, falling in love, or (speaking for myself, at least) feeling one passing moment that even closely resembled lust.

And yet as soon as I type these words, I am checked by a sense of undue pride in my own self-mastery, remembering that it is exactly such that goes before a fall.

While most Vox readers are at least passingly familiar with Billy Graham (and now his “rule”), many may not know about his grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, once a Presbyterian minister like his grandfather, but now disgraced after a series of extramarital affairs involving women under his ministerial care. The distance between the rule and its fall is, apparently, just one generation — and perhaps one dose of a sense of invincibility.

The real tool for avoiding workplace romance: the virtue of prudence

Of course, one need not look far to find myriad examples of such failures and betrayals. If these don’t give us pause, then we are imprudent indeed.

Prudence, in fact, is what seems to be missing from the conversation about the vice president’s “rules.” And I don’t mean prudence in the way that some supporters of the Billy Graham rule are using the term. Prudence as properly understood is a virtue, not a rule.

It is the virtue most applicable in the context of guarding against workplace romances, the habit of making right decisions. Prudence, which literally means foresight, is the mean between cunning and negligence. It is wisdom in action.

While prudence does not rely on rules, it doesn’t shun them either. Failure to acknowledge this would be as foolish as praising the federal Title IX regulations out of one side of the mouth while mocking Pence’s personal protections against sexual misbehavior out of the other. I would be unable to serve half of my students if I had a rule not to meet with a man alone, and the same would be true of my male colleagues and their students. On the other hand, because of this necessity, my school (like most) has windows on all office doors and a rule that those windows are not to be covered. This is prudent. The lack of any guiding principles is a deficiency, specifically the vice of negligence.

The opposite vice, the excess of prudence, is cunning. Cunning in this context manifests itself in a particular way. Cunning foresees too much of sex too much of the time. It anticipates and plans excessively. As many critics have pointed out, excessive attempts to avoid potentially sexualized situations only sexualizes them further. Like my offer of a ride to my colleague: It wasn’t sexual — until it was. While boundaries are not only good but necessary, they will shift from time to time, person to person, and situation to situation. After all, rules about no closed doors, lunches, or car rides were made many years before the internet became the most ubiquitous form of infidelity. Only moral character can guard against some things. Rigid, one-size-fits all rules tend toward the excess of cunning, which is a vice.

In all things, moderation

It’s interesting, but no great wonder, really, that we elected to our highest office, together, a self-confessed sexual predator and a sort of Pollyanna purist. As Charles Dickens once said of another revolution (not the sexual one), “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In other words, it was, and is now, an age of immoderation. We humans are creatures prone to immoderation. This is why virtue ethics is so crucial to human flourishing.

The proper response to excess isn’t excess in the opposite direction (both of which are vices) — it’s virtue. If Pence’s guardedness toward his marriage and his heart seems excessive, the response to it ought not to be excessive. For example, it’s not rape culture, as one writer proclaims, to live a life that acknowledges the fact that people are sexual and that sexual attraction is heightened in some circumstances more than others, and to guard against that reality. On the other hand, there are a lot more reasons in my workplace for me to meet alone with a man than to plan my spouse’s surprise party or a funeral, as one public figure tweeted in response to the controversy.

It is prudent, too, not to get too bent out of shape over one man’s good-faith efforts to guard his marriage wisely. If our shared goal is equality for women in the workplace and protection of marriages and families, we cultivate the virtues in ourselves — and model them for others who are struggling to do so along with us — for the good of all.

In all things, moderation — even in our responses to those we wish were more moderate.

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Her forthcoming book on literature and the virtues will be published in 2018.

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