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.