Yeah, Mike Pence is a raging hypocrite — but not because of his puritanical private life

Twitter mocks the veep for staying away from booze or solo dinners with women. But that part's not the problem

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published March 30, 2017 6:00PM (EDT)

Mike Pence               (AP/Darron Cummings)
Mike Pence (AP/Darron Cummings)

Earlier this week, The Washington Post published a profile of Vice President Mike Pence’s marriage to Karen Pence, who has served as her husband’s “gut check and shield,” despite her vow to stay out of policy matters, throughout their 30-plus years of marriage. Karen Pence is portrayed as a devout evangelical Christian, a loyal friend and family member, an advocate for art therapy and military families, and an anti-LGBT crusader. Bog-standard stuff for a Midwestern politician’s wife these days, really.

One detail in particular caught the eye of Secular Left Twitter, however. If you only read the gleefully retweeted digest version, our nation's veep is quite possibly a latent womanizer who can’t trust himself to be within arm’s reach of an open bar without Karen to serve in her “gut check and shield” role.

“Mike Pence told the Hill [in 2002] that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either,” the paper reported.

This is commonly known as the “Billy Graham Rule,” after the celebrity evangelist. The Twitterati have been having a field day with this anecdote because it hints at confirming some wishful thinking about possible hypocrisy lurking behind Pence’s squeaky-clean facade. It’s no “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” sure, but maybe Pence is just one Scotch on the rocks away from becoming a wild pussy grabber himself, and he knows it.

To the modern secular American adult, it might seem as if the only reason to hold to such strict self-imposed social rules is the potential for complete loss of control. Substitute “gluten” for “alcohol” and it’s a New Yorker cartoon caption waiting to happen.

None of us knows what deviance lurks in Mike Pence’s tight little heart, needless to say. But considering yourself a prospective sinner at all times is entirely consistent with evangelical tradition. Remember Jimmy Carter, in his legendary 1976 Playboy interview, confessing that he had “committed adultery in [his] heart many times” because he had “looked on a lot of women with lust.” The secular left can look back on that quaint, pre-Bill Clinton moment with an “Aw, Grandpa!” level of fond exasperation — that’s not what adultery means! — but for guys like Mike Pence, the struggle is real.

Of all the terrible things Mike Pence has done in the name of his brand of evangelical Christianity, the practice of self-righteously skipping dinners with women he isn’t related to isn’t one of them. Yet Pence is being savaged for his puritanical approach to marriage and social life not because he’s an evangelical Christian, but because he’s not a Jimmy Carter-style evangelical. This has little to do with his marriage itself — if I had to have dinner with Mike Pence I’d probably be a bit grateful for Karen’s company, all things considered — and everything to do with the way he tries to impose his faith in the public sphere.

When Donald Trump tapped Pence to be his running mate, the Indy Star gave a rundown of the 10 things to know about Pence, who was then the governor of Indiana. No. 1 was his claim that he’s “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” His two lodestars are the Bible and the writings of Russell Kirk, the author of “The Conservative Mind.” Here’s Pence on what Kirk’s work has taught him:

The conservative is animated by the principle of driving toward the ideal of solutions that are grounded in economic freedom and individual liberty, but also understanding that compromise is part of the conservative approach to governance.

“Individual liberty,” in Pence’s case, seems to be a one-way street. His work to curtail rights for women and LGBT people can be seen as evidence of his No. 1 identity as an evangelical Christian, with its faith-driven anti-abortion mission and strong preference for heteronormative social roles, overriding his secondary identity as an upholder of freedom and individual liberty. But I would be surprised if Pence sees them as being in conflict with each other: It all depends on whose individual liberty you believe is most under threat.

To an evangelical of his stripes, the conservative Christian lifestyle — “Billy Graham Rule” and all — is the endangered one because it is out of step with the contemporary social mores reflected in America's mass media and our country’s progress in areas that conservative evangelicals consider antithetical to their beliefs, like the legal definition of marriage expanding beyond “man and wife.” In other words, so the persecuted evangelical thinking goes, Jimmy Kimmel’s probably going to make a joke about my marriage — and that’s not fair!

It is the height of narcissism to look at, say, a trans man’s right not to be murdered for walking down the street, or a woman’s right to control when and if and how she becomes pregnant or carries a pregnancy to term, as being less significant to the mission of upholding individual liberty than your personal feelings about being laughed at by Democrats, especially when you are in power. But if Pence and his ilk want their Christian values to be respected by the wider public, he and leaders like him might look to Carter as a guide for how to incorporate a spiritual life into public service.

Carter, like many presidents, was close with Billy Graham but didn’t want him leading services in the White House, as he had done for previous administrations. The born-again “redeemer president” who read the Bible aloud with his wife Rosalynn every night and attended a Baptist church made a point of keeping his religious practices out of his policymaking, except in matters of waging peace and caring for the less fortunate. Nobody’s saying that Pence has to embrace the progressive evangelical values that Carter upheld, but how about a good old-fashioned conservative compromise? Conservative Christians in office might find the wider culture more willing to uphold their humanity, and push back against the mocking of their religious beliefs, if they prove themselves willing to do unto others first.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

MORE FROM Erin Keane