Mike Pence won't meet with women alone. Here's why he's wrong

Mike Pence being sworn in as US Vice-President with his wife Karen at his side.Reuters

There are some elements of evangelical culture that I explain to my friends and see their faces light up. I think of the woman at my church who lends me her car whenever I need it. 'Why does she do it?' asked another friend. He was struggling to get his head round the default generosity of a fellow-Christian.

There are, though, other times when having to explain something from the evangelical subculture is a tough gig. This week we had one of those situations as Vice-President Mike Pence revealed that he refuses to be alone with women who aren't his wife.  

This rule – called the Billy Graham Rule, after the legendary evangelist – is widespread among pastors and other Christian figures. It means that across America – and the UK, and elsewhere – there are men who will simply reject any meeting with a woman – even in a public place – that isn't chaperoned.

Try explaining that one to a non-Christian friend.

Laura Turner, one of the best interpreters of evangelical culture to the secular world, has had a good try in the Washington Post. She says: 'The impulse that led to the Billy Graham Rule... is a good and honorable one... But good intentions do not always produce helpful consequences. In this case, the Billy Graham Rule risks reducing women to sexual temptations, objects, things to be avoided.'

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This is indisputably true. The advantages of being beyond reproach come at a cost. The way that women are portrayed by this rule is both a small part of and a reinforcement of the sexism which persists in the evangelical Church.

On that basis alone, we should reject the blanket imposition of the Billy Graham Rule. But there is another reason, too. The idea that I should rule out half of the population to be able to have a private conversation with is, frankly, absurd.

There are some topics which can't be covered in groups. There are certain subjects that only close friends and confidants can hear about. And there are a number of areas that we may want to reveal to a pastor or priest.

This isn't merely a theoretical objection, it is rooted in real life experience. Many friends of mine have benefitted hugely from having close contact with someone not of the same sex.

This is certainly true in my own life. Some of my best friends are women and I hope that will always be the case. Women who are friends who have enriched my life in ways that I can barely begin to list. I have been able to rely on them in tough times and share joy with them in their own lives. Why would I deprive both them and myself of that privilege?

Friendship is one thing, but there are a number of other ways in which one-on-one meetings with women have been helpful to me. I have been in churches where women have been part of the pastoral team and have been incredibly supportive. My GP is a woman and though I rarely have to visit her I always feel very comfortable with her. She also happens to be a Christian and I feel a sense of trust that is vital with a doctor. The fact that she is female barely crosses my mind before I enter her office and close the door – I know she's a good doctor and that's what matters.

The Billy Graham rule credits both men and woman with too little maturity, too little respect for each other and too little basic common sense. It may be helpful for certain individuals for a time in their lives but in general, I can't see how restricting access to the wisdom, friendship and professional excellence of half the population is a good idea.

As usual, Jesus should be our model. His radical inclusion and elevation of women was astonishing in his cultural context and he didn't care at all about the backlash that was created. If it's good enough for him, it should be good enough for us. Women aren't just equal. In many, many ways, the women I'm privileged to know are better that me at a plethora of things and there's no way I'm going to deprive myself of their wisdom, insight and friendship.

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy

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