The Billy Graham Rule

I’m a male. I’m a Christian. I’m a leader. I’m a male Christian leader, and I came of age in the long twilight shadows of “the Billy Graham rule.”

What is the Billy Graham Rule (BGR)? It was one of the principles formulated by the aforementioned traveling evangelist and his associates in 1948 during an outreach event in Modesto, CA. It constituted an effort to preserve their own integrity in the areas of finances, collaboration with churches, event reporting and, most famously, marital fidelity.

They called this document, the “Modesto Manifesto.”  The aspect garnering the most recent notice pertains to parameters regarding interaction with those of the opposite sex (in their case, females):

We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.

This rule has been thrust unexpectedly into the national conversation after it was revealed that Vice President Mike Pence himself subscribes to an iteration of it.

This tempest in a teapot has up-swelled a veritable pandemonium of responses! (Just Google “Billy Graham Rule.”) Commentators have scrutinized this principle from every conceivable angle; defending, ridiculing, questioning its legality and even conflating it with misogyny and the promotion of “rape culture”—met in turn with recriminating charges of hypocrisy!

Personally, this has occasioned the opportunity for me to reflect on my own history with this rule. I’ll share it with you here.

I began taking my Christian faith seriously during a time in my life when I couldn’t not think constantly about sex. It was true north on the compass of my urges! And yet, simultaneously, there was growing a very genuine faith in Jesus and a sense that I wanted to be a good follower of his. I experienced this duality as some sort of Medieval torture rack, constantly threatening to tear me asunder!

For youth group leaders this duality assumes a clunky principal role, as do innumerable concomitant “real talk” sessions for the guys. I recall these gatherings as part pep-talk, part scared straight, part AA meeting and all discomfort—inevitably led by someone with a goatee. They tended toward an ethos of deprivation. Little space was given to a balanced relationship with pleasure, nor, most importantly, a more holistic outlook on women.

The purity literature that emerged from this era advocated techniques like “bouncing the eyes”. The idea being that since Jesus equated sexual fantasy with adultery, one must boing one’s eyes from attractive women lest one unwittingly capture adultery-worthy mental material. While it is true that Jesus addressed the objectifying nature of sexual fantasizing, mightn’t he have been intending to address how one views women rather than advocating for an alternate make-believe of pretending they don’t exist? “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out!” Jesus said. Is your eye really ever the cause? Or does the way you appraise women originate from a deeper place? (Let’s also remember that he didn’t say to “gouge out” the woman!)

I look back with real pity on anyone who sought to convene such a hormonally supercharged band of feral human boys for anything so sacred—it was ostensibly a fool’s errand!  And yet, through a haze of horniness, I was found among those few straining to listen. I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, but “sexual purity” seemed to me like an absurd impossibility! However, I was filled with a level of personal idealism that rivaled my atomic sexual energy, and so it was, as it were, that I girded up my loins for the battle! (Let’s pretend I didn’t just write that.)

I cannot recollect whether it was around the end of my high school days or early in my college career that I happened upon the oddity in question: “The Billy Graham Rule.”

Graham is a figure whom many evangelicals speak of in hushed tones. The aura of his name once performed a type of spiritual alchemy; gilding normal ideas and sentiments with a heavenly gold leafing. I don’t mean any of this to be glib or scornful. It is hard to have anything but high regard for Graham. I only mean to offer a glimpse into the subcultural milieu in which my own concepts were framed.

Many of the male leaders around me adhered to this rule: wouldn’t meet alone with women or drive them home from meetings. I admired these men, and catalogued this under a heading of something like: “Things Serious Christian Leaders Do.” A sort of spiritual hygiene!

And as it turned out, buried somewhere in that tormented 15-year-old boy was a person with a bent toward ministry. I became a campus minister at a small school in Nebraska after graduation and felt what I still believe was an appropriately heightened sense of moral accountability.

I worried at times about the intentions of women in our group, and sought to keep safe distance. Of course I also worried about my own intentions—those hormones never quite exeunt—and was cognizant not to defraud the women to whom I felt a pastoral responsibility. But didn’t my pastoral responsibility extend not just around their lives, but into them? I’ll admit that my care for the women in that ministry very much resembled window shopping—acknowledgment without intent to act.

Incidentally, one of my closest relationships during that time turned out to be a very thoughtful gay man. We spent time running, reading the Bible and talking over coffee—he really was one of my few kindred spirits in that town!—and I consciously dispensed with any misgivings about indiscretions or “leading him on.” I concluded that the import of our relationship took precedence over my hesitancies. It did help that I harbored no physical attraction toward men, but, either way, I offered myself needed latitude out of care for him. (In an odd turn of events, it was members of his own gay community who actually cautioned him against spending time with me! For his part, he demurred. It was a good friendship!)

Then I met someone. A cute, smart, deep and very together woman, who would soon become my wife. We moved to Kansas and continued our ministry work at a campus there. The majority of Christian male leaders around me still practiced various versions of the BGR, but I was beginning sense an internal dissonance with my own awkwardness toward women—students, female colleagues, really all of them!

I recognized in myself a grotesque deformity, of which my fits of lust were only a syndrome—a sub-humanizing view of women (what Martin Buber would call an “I/It” where an “I/Thou” should’ve been). It was something I needed to confront!

Clumsily at first, I sought those steady, normal, non-flirtatious conversations with women, at which men generally tend to be so inept! Little by little, I found myself delighted by eureka moments. A deeper and more textured pictured took shape before my eyes, and also behind them! A true metamorphosis began.

Around this time two significant things happened: we started having children, and I assumed the directorship our campus ministry. My wife’s availability to women decreased as she became the primary caregiver for our growing family. And I was privileged to work among some truly sensational women! (Not that all women aren’t sensational, but, as with all working relationships, sometimes you just marvel at someone’s giftedness and contribution.) It quickly became apparent that these were not exceptional female leaders, but exceptional leaders, full stop. In retrospect, this is such a remedial concept, but we are all so much the products of our native soil; mine being late 20th century evangelicalism. Anyway, I had no business not creating space in which we might have meaningful interactions! So I did.

I began to gradually unwind these artificial rules, and a dynamic give-and-take began to open before me; more often than not I was the primary beneficiary. One way or another, each of us were permitted to exit our poverty and enter appreciable wealth. I had been withholding something important from these women and from myself. It needs to be said that in evangelical circles these mores do cut both ways, viz., this can feel like foreign territory for men and women alike.

Were such pearls of discovery altogether unexpected for me? Not at all! The epiphanies were located in experiencing closeness and depth without the dreaded slippery-slope of romantic attachment. It was this risk-aversion keeping me at bay; oftentimes inwardly pining for an alternate paradigm! And you might expect me to say that I stopped finding women not my wife less lovely, but it is quite the opposite—I began discovering loveliness radiating from all women! But my own relationship to this beauty became itself more lovely, loving and whole. This was my realization; something I wasn’t sure could happen.

So do I have parameters—what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “guardrails“? I do. Most of society does. It could be an open door policy at a public school or described in terms of “transparency.”  I can’t really improve on Coates’ own words.

I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.
This is not just true of infidelity, it’s true of virtually anything I’ve ever done in my life…
These are compacts I have made with myself and with my family. There are other compacts we make with our country and society. I tend to think those compacts work best when we do not flatter ourselves, when we are fully aware of the animal in us.

Coates speaks in terms of self-honesty, and I think that is a good focal point. Why am I doing what I’m doing (or not doing what I’m not)? Yes, these are a types of “compacts” with our broader community (very “I/Thou”). This mirrors my own thinking in the matter, ergo I strive to understand the value of such appointments, we pick appropriate settings, these are fully disclosed to my wife (or to their significant other) and awareness of emotional over-connectedness is essential. Self-honesty always leads to accountability toward self and others. Oftentimes we need others to help us apprehend the health of our own involvements, or the message being broadcast. Both matter!

To maintain a right balance isn’t simple, but it concedes those lackings which reside at the poles of both recklessness and rigidity. To love and value another is seldom simple. Simple “guidelines” can never stand in for human compassion, nor even real integrity. Though these can and should inform them! Guidelines must be subjected to our deeper virtues, and to the evolving realities of real relationships with real people in which we would apply them.

There is a telling episode from the life of Billy Graham; one which seems to have factored into the BGR pathos. Evidently, after one of his large events, Graham returned to his hotel room to find a naked woman awaiting him. He exited the situation swiftly (at this point the woman fades from the vignette) determined to redouble his resolve toward sexual fidelity.

It is hard to fully put one’s self into the shoes of a handsome, dynamic and world-renowned Christian figure like Graham. As with most global celebrity, it is an existence sui generis. This is part of why we shouldn’t rush to overlay his parameters onto disparate contexts. We need to be more personally in-tune. But, for Graham, this was his chosen safeguard.

Still I’m grieved by how this naked woman becomes a placeholder for women in general. Equally, I’m grieved by how she herself becomes only a placeholder and not a complicated, real human presence in the story. This in not a critique of Graham per se, but of the myopic evangelical reception of this anecdote. Who was this woman—every bit as valuable as our beloved protagonist? How unlike Jesus!

It was Jesus who was constantly making space for such women, even one who was literally thrust before him half-nude. His open posture toward women was endlessly perplexing within his own social context, where women existed on a lower plane than men. (Not unlike our own!) Read through the gospels and you’ll lose count of Jesus’ tender moments with women of all varieties. (“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman.”)

Jesus once told a group of morally fastidious male leaders, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

For Jesus, women—really humans in general—were never placeholders! This was the spellbinding feature of his life! Kids, foreigners, women, crippled, diseased, prostitutes, publicans, even self-righteous religious conservatives were only always treasured human individuals to him. This tends to be where we get off track. Unlike Jesus, we search for paragons to mimic. In so doing, we become once-removed from the actual people among whom we find ourselves.

Now it seems wrong-headed to, on the one hand, excoriate Trump for his predatory history toward women and then, with equal measure, denounce Pence’s well-intended (if misguided) efforts to avoid such harmful indiscretions. It smacks of the uncharitable point-scoring currently undermining our civil society. Better to constructively invite Pence (and others like him) into a more refined picture of what it means to wholly do well; something I grieve that our nation has lost its nerve to carry out.

But our society is so brutal to women at every turn, is it not? (As husband and father of two daughters, I’m aghast.) Our president is an unquestionable misogynist and serial philanderer. Mainstream media portrays crushingly inhumane body standards to women and simultaneously reduces them to objects—brand-enhancing sexualized eye-candy! Aspiration in women is frequently deemed unseemly, and they must endure the pernicious labels of shrill, stiff, severe or worse! The playing field is tragicomically slanted, and the deserts of full-orbed humanness oftentimes dangled just beyond reach. But the ground to be gained is with the well-meaning, and both men and women need to be offered pathways toward something better. Angers and fears are both understandable, but, left unchecked, they will only stand as roadblocks. Neither salvo nor the bunker allow for terms of accord.

I’m uncomfortably conscious that what I’m describing above tends to be a luxury afforded to men in our society. (“Isn’t it nice that you were allowed to have such a meaningful process of self-discovery whilst we waited out in the cold!”) I get that.

As with most societal frictions, resolution is best localized; being worked out into manifold contexts.

So may I at least implore you Christian men shaping your environs from Christian impulses to localize this even further—into your interior realm? Examine your own thoughts, emotions, attitudes and behaviors toward women and pose, “Are these governed by dehumanizing fears or by a brave Christ-like love?” Incidentally, similar such self-evaluation can befit any male intent on doing better, regardless of motivation! (Hint: involve some women in this exercise! Most well-meaning enterprises falter at this point.)

What you do with your answers is undoubtedly up to you. But doing nothing is not a viable choice, for we are always doing something—even especially in what we leave undone.

To quote the historian Howard Zinn, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Come to think of it, trains themselves lumber rigidly down predetermined tracks. What if we disembarked our trains altogether in order to travel awhile alongside one another by foot, just as Jesus did? Sometimes it’s best to be nimble!

6 thoughts on “The Billy Graham Rule”

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