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The ‘Billy Graham Rule’ comes under fire

October 2019 | by Ben Wilkerson

Robert and Heather Foster
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In recent political news, Robert Foster, a Republican runner-up for the Mississippi gubernatorial race, has been criticized for his Christian views when he refused to let a female reporter shadow him for the day for a news article. Larrison Campbell, writer for Mississippi Today was nominated to write an article on the GOP candidate in an all-day ride-along. Robert Foster denied the request saying that would not put himself in a position alone with any woman other than his wife and requested that in order to do the interview, she would bring along a male colleague.

In an interview with broadcaster NPR, Foster unveiled his reasoning behind this request, ‘I put my wife and my Christian beliefs above anyone else’s feelings or opinions … and I did not want there to be a perception that I was riding with another female and that something promiscuous was going on or anything like that’ (NPR, ‘Mississippi Gubernatorial Candidate’s Condition For Female Reporter: Bring A Man’, July 11, 2019).

Larrison Campbell
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The reporter, Larrison Campbell, expressed her opinion: ‘It was so out of left field, I didn’t think it was going to be real’ (NPR, Ibid.). Citing his response as ‘antiquated’, she commented, ‘You’re only going to assume that it’s an improper relationship if, when you look at me, you don’t see a woman doing her job, you see a woman who is a sexual object’, (NPR, Ibid.).

Foster then tweeted about the backlash citing that he was being attacked for his Christian faith. In an interview with The New York Times, Campbell referring to Foster and his team stated, ‘They’re trying to take something that is inherently sexist — not giving a female reporter the same access they would give a male reporter — and they’re trying to turn it into this liberal versus conservative thing’, she said. The media has run with this story, mocking Foster for his Christian stance.

The Billy Graham Rule

In 1948, Billy Graham and several other Christian evangelical leaders met in Modesto, California to discuss how they would conduct themselves in the public area, especially in a context where media scrutiny was rampant. They promised never to be alone with a woman who wasn’t their wife, in any context.

Ruth and Billy Graham
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The premise of the accountability statement was to prevent themselves from any lust or wayward thoughts. In most recent history, US Vice President Mike Pence has also used this principle and was often criticized for it. This approach to interacting with women has not been without severe criticism from media due to its apparent ‘sexism’.

Media firestorm

Since Foster’s unwillingness to allow a female reporter to shadow him on a 15-hour drive, the media has unleashed a firestorm of criticism on his view. While The New York Times and The Washington Post have written news stories on this issue, other media news sites have unleashed some scathing commentary.

Monica Hesse, writing for The Chicago Tribune expressed her views on the Billy Graham Rule by calling it ‘a dubious philosophy also championed by Mike Pence. It doesn’t honour your wife. It just presumes that your marriage vows are so flimsy that you can’t be trusted to uphold them unless a babysitter monitors you. It’s rather like a thief sanctimoniously announcing that he brings a parole officer every time he goes to the bank to make sure he doesn’t rob it. Good for you, dude, for knowing your own limitations — but it doesn’t make you better than the rest of us, who manage to regularly not steal things even when we’re completely alone’. The Chicago Tribune, ‘Commentary: The ‘Billy Graham Rule’ doesn’t honour your wife — it demeans her and all women’, July 11, 2019).

The article went on further, ‘The most harmful aspect is this: It keeps women out of the room. It says that men can forward their careers via mentoring sessions, golf games and brainstorming lunches, but women cannot. Are we to gather that, because of this rule, Foster would also never employ a female chief of staff, attorney or accountant, and never visit a female doctor, dentist or physical therapist, since all of those roles would necessitate occasional alone time?’ (Chicago Tribune, Ibid.).

The Business Insider called this policy a possible case of workplace discrimination that could be federally prosecuted. ‘Professor Joanna Grossman, the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and the Law at Southern Methodist University Law School and a leading expert in gender discrimination law, told Insider in a Thursday email that while denying Campbell the chance to ride along with his campaign may not constitute workplace discrimination, following the Billy Graham Rule could cause problems in his current job — and down the line if he became governor’ (The Business Insider, ‘A Mississippi politician abides by the ‘Billy Graham Rule,’ but his refusal to be alone with a woman other than his wife in a work setting could be illegal, according to an employment law expert’, July 12, 2019).

Grossman further stated that Foster’s policy ‘could be illegally discriminating against their female employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which establishes anti-discrimination protections in the workplace for “protected characteristics”, including sex’ (Business Insider Ibid.).

Grossman further criticized the rule, ‘The troubling part of this story is that the very “rule” itself is founded on the assumption that women exist to titillate and tempt men, even in a professional setting in which they simply seek to do their jobs,’ Grossman added. ‘Equality is foreclosed by a system predicated on that assumption’ (Business Insider, Ibid.).

Purity in a culture of compromise

In The New York Times’ recent article on Robert Foster, they included some very interesting public statistics on the subject, ‘While many have criticized the practice [avoiding one on one interactions] as sexist, the attitude behind it is common among Americans: A 2017 poll conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times found that many men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations. Around a quarter said that private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate, while nearly two-thirds believed that extra caution should be taken around members of the opposite sex at work, the poll found. And a majority of women — and nearly half of men — said it was unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse (NYT Ibid.).

So despite what the media says, many still feel uncomfortable working in tight one-on-one situations with the opposite sex.

After reading many different versions of the story (mostly written from the media left), it does seem as if Foster is under immense pressure for his faith. One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that one of the primary reasons Foster’s team blocked Campbell’s access on a ride-along was for optics. The New York Times stated ‘Mr. Robison said that the campaign “believed the optics of the candidate with a woman, even a working reporter, could be used in a smear campaign to insinuate an extramarital affair”’.

It would seem that Foster’s reasons for not interviewing with Ms. Campbell were two-fold. First, Foster felt it would compromise his marriage to be seen one-on-one with another woman. Second, Foster wanted to remove any insinuation or hint of suspicion that he was having an extramarital affair that would compromise his run for governor.

In this day and age, those are two very real fears for anyone who is a believer and who is seeking to honour his calling in the workplace. In an age where our public image is virtually accessible by anyone, any accusation would be possible and untenable. Foster is also recognising that he is not above temptation, even if the woman is homosexual. While the media may say that such a deliberate action makes women sexual objects by default, Foster and others who use this policy understand that the heart is utterly deceitful and wicked above all things (Jeremiah 17:9).

Jesus speaks about this in Mark’s gospel when he says: ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’. (Mark 9:42-43, 45, 47-48 ESV). If someone struggles with lust or sexual sin, he or she should not allow themselves to be in a situation where they are one-on-one with the opposite sex.

I do believe that we should affirm and honour women as image bearers of God. We are created for community and we mirror that in the celebration of being uniquely male and female. ‘God’s first and primary example of a united, loving community imaging him was male and female together. They are equal in value, worth, and dignity while simultaneously different. Genesis 1:26-27 records the distinction between male and female, before sin permeated their being and wrought corruption. Therefore, the difference between male and female is a gift to be celebrated, not a handicap to be hidden. Further, because men and women are meant to complement one another in the creation order, each must be able to flourish in the context of covenant community’ (PCA report on Women’s Roles in Ministry).

Leaders of the church should seek to encourage women to participate in legitimate areas of ministry and to use their God-given gifts accordingly. Men should seek to honour women as fellow image bearers in their callings in life. That does not mean that we discard the wisdom that God has given us when we know our weaknesses and shortcomings. Interactions between the sexes in the workplace can be a dicey situation but we should seek to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. In a day and age where feminism is rampant in the workplace, it is difficult to know how to tread. I think that however ‘silly’ (in the world’s eyes) Robert Foster’s actions may seem, I would commend him for his action.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.