The Graham rule.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 July

Here’s a big excerpt from one of evangelist Billy Graham’s autobiographies (yep, he wrote more than one), Just As I Am. It’s a good read.

From time to time Cliff [Barrows], Bev [George Beverly Shea], Grady [Wilson], and I talked among ourselves about the recurring problems many evangelists seemed to have, and about the poor image so-called mass evangelism had in the eyes of many people. Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character Elmer Gantry unquestionably had given traveling evangelists a bad name. To our sorrow, we knew that some evangelists were not much better than Lewis’s scornful caricature.

One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the Team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered.

When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitments among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work. In reality, it was more of an informal understanding among ourselves—a shared commitment to do all we could to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.

The first point on our combined list was money. […]

The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. 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. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee… youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2:22, KJV).

Our third concern was the tendency of many evangelists to carry on their work apart from the local church, even to criticize local pastors and churches openly and scathingly. […]

The fourth and final issue was publicity. The tendency among some evangelists was to exaggerate their successes or claim higher attendance numbers than they really had. […]

So much for the Modesto Manifesto, as Cliff called it in later years. In reality it did not mark a radical departure for us; we had always held these principles. It did, however, settle in our hearts and minds, once and for all, the determination that integrity would be the hallmark of both our lives and our ministry. Graham 127–129

Graham’s music director Cliff Barrows called all of these resolutions, made in 1948, “the Modesto Manifesto.” It was their way of avoiding the scandalous reputation of con-artist evangelists, like we see in the documentary Marjoe, or the novel Elmer Gantry (another good read, by the way). The goal was to be far, far better than that—and get those concerns out of the way so they could focus on sharing the gospel.

But more recently certain politicians, including our current vice president, have made the national news because they observe one resolution of the four. The second one. The sexual-immorality one. Where they’re not gonna be alone in a room with any woman other than their wives, for fear of the appearance of evil. Not the actual evil themselves; they’re pretty sure they can keep their zipper up. (Not that Bill Gothard ever needed to undo clothing.)

They call it “the Billy Graham rule.” And to the world outside the Bible Belt, it strikes ’em as ridiculous. You can’t be alone in a room with a woman? How in the world are you gonna have private meetings with women constituents? With women staffers? Are you this paranoid about women? Or have you this little self-control?—that every time you’re alone with a woman you’re gonna assault her? You gotta always have a chaperone around? Is that feasable? Are taxpayer dollars gonna pay for this full-time chaperone?

Now inside the Bible Belt, and the conservative Christian subculture, the Graham rule makes perfect sense. And it’s everywhere. And it’s mandatory, in some churches. I’ve worked for ministries where they absolutely forbade one man and one woman to be alone in a room, or a car, together. Because like Graham and his team, we all knew people who slipped up in this area. Not about people who did this; personally knew people who did this. In my life thus far, I’ve had five pastors whose ministry-related sexual activity became public scandal. And that’s just the people who got caught.

So yeah, there’s a need for accountability guidelines like the Graham rule. Question is, should it specifically be the Graham rule? Because the pagans who think it weird and wrong, have a valid point: How can you provide equal access to your constituents if you need a chaperone for half of them? How does that not perpetuate a sexist power structure?

Stuff to think about. So I did.

In practice and mispractice.

In the 20th century, when Billy Graham worked and ministered, the workplace was male-dominated. And sexist. Including in Christian ministries; especially in complementarian churches. Women weren’t there to lead, but follow. So you’d never need to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman, because she’d never be an equal. And if you don’t need to take such meetings, the Graham rule works just fine.

Until it doesn’t. In 1989 Hillary Clinton, then the first lady of Arkansas, wanted to meet with him. Graham had to bend his rule to have lunch with her: They met in a public dining room. Graham 651 They met alone, as prohibited by the rule; but surrounded by witnesses, so nobody could accuse either of ’em of anything inappropriate. Sound reasonable? Does to me. But a lot of people who hold to the Graham rule, would see even that as too great a compromise.

Are they being too legalistic? Depends on why they’re following the rule.

In my case, I’ve had the rule, or a variant of it, foisted on me by the ministries and churches I’ve worked for. Like I said, five of my pastors have been ensnared in sexual scandal, so the churches figured the Graham rule was the best way to keep it from happening again. Employees were expected to abide by the ministry’s rule.

And we did… till it became inconvenient. Fr’instance two of us were expected to go to San Francisco for an event. That’d be me, and a woman I worked with. Well, the way our ministry worded the Graham rule included a man and woman alone in a car: That was forbidden too. So it meant we’d have to go to San Francisco separately: She’d take her car, and I (since I didn’t drive) would take BART and the Muni and walk. And have to leave maybe three hours before she did.

Yeah, both of us considered this stupid. We went there together anyway. Not secretly; I didn’t hide anything. Neither did I get up in meetings and boast about how I broke the rule, and how stupid the rule was. We generally were okay with the Graham rule, but everybody recognized it’d be foolish to take two cars—much less me take public transit.

Did we keep our hands to ourselves? Well duh; of course we did. We didn’t have that kind of relationship. But if I was worried about her in any way, or her about me, you know suddenly the Graham rule would have become this absolute imperative which we had to follow.

And likewise if our bosses had been absolute sticklers about the rule. ’Cause some churches get that way. If anyone breaks any of the smallest rules, they’re fired. Our church and pastor didn’t have that zero-tolerance mindset, but if they or he did, we couldn’t have ignored the rule: We’d be out of our jobs. Our attitude about the rule was largely based on how much grace they’d have over how we chose to interpret it.

Why people adopt the Graham rule.

My experience kinda informed me why certain people are so strict about the Graham rule. Essentially it comes down to three things. And for fun I’ll use the vice president as an example; not that these are his reasons, although one of them certainly is. (I’ll let you pick which one.)

THEY CAN’T TRUST THEMSELVES. Usually people in leadership have some degree of self-control, ’cause self-control is necessary in leaders. (But some leaders inherited their wealth or job, so anyway.) So let’s say the vice president is self-aware enough to realize he needs such a guideline: Every time he’s alone with a woman, he can’t help himself; he can’t resist temptation. He’s gonna make a pass at her, or straight-up assault her. For such men, the Graham rule makes total sense. And women oughta thank God he follows it!

Not that I believe at all the vice president has no impulse control. That’d be the president.

THEY DON’T THINK THEY CAN TRUST OTHERS. Everywhere I’ve taught, girls get crushes on me. Not ’cause I’m hot, but because the combination of a friendly man and raging hormones easily do the job. With kids, it never occurs to them this relationship is never gonna happen, ’cause they’re kids, and hormones make you stupid. So they try to flirt, and I find it creepy, and make sure other adults are in the room, or the door’s open, or we’re otherwise never alone. I want other people around to help keep these kids in check.

So let’s say the vice president has the very same problem: Every time he’s alone with women, they hit on him. People who covet power tend to find it attractive. And it’s bothersome and distracting, and happens so often, he can’t trust anyone to keep their hands off him. So the Graham rule is a necessity.

True, it may purely be a delusional fear on the vice president’s part. In certain churches, the youth pastors don’t know how to talk to the kids about sex, so with the boys, they go on and on and on about predatory women. They take the few scriptures on the subject, and blow ’em so far out of proportion, you fear every woman wants to rape you. And when you’re a horny teenager, you might presume your drives are everyone’s drives… so for some boys, this tactic actually does work. (For others, it backfires hard, and drives ’em to promiscuity.) Possibly the vice president’s Bible Belt upbringing has put this phobia in him, so the Graham rule keeps his irrational fears in check. Not that I know him well enough to say so.

THEIR BOSSES TRUST NO ONE. Lastly, the vice president may not be the one who decided he was gonna live by the Graham rule. That decision may have been made by his wife: “If we’re going into public life, you’re following this rule or we’re done.” Neither the rule, nor its interpretation, is up to him. So he’s gotta be strict about it.

That was the deal with a number of the places I’ve worked at. The Graham rule wasn’t my rule; wasn’t my conviction. It was my bosses’, so I wasn’t free to interpret it as I liked.

And I suspect this is true of a lot of politicians. ’Cause I’ve listened to a number of them sputter out the reasons why they believe in this rule… and none of them sound like serious personal convictions. They’re following somebody else’s rule. Could be their church’s rule, but my money’s usually on the wife. She doesn’t trust him enough—probably for good reason! Or she doesn’t trust the women he’ll have to work with. Either way, she made it mandatory, so now it is.

Considering how the vice president has compromised so many of his personal convictions in order to defend his president, it sounds mighty plausible to me that he’s willing to adopt his wife’s convictions on this issue instead of his own. Even though he’s got valid reasons to follow his wife; not so much the president. But again, I’m just spitballing.

Why not to.

But like I said before: People wanna know how you can provide equal access to constituents when you follow the Graham rule. Because it sounds like women have to jump through extra hoops to get hired, to exist at that workplace, to be heard, to have access to their boss or elected representative. It sounds unfair.

And if it’s not implemented properly, by a politician, boss, or pastor who recognizes its tendency to hinder access, it will be unfair. It’s why they need to make reasonable accommodations so women can have equal access to them.

When I taught school, we didn’t do the Graham rule; we had an “open door policy.” Every door had to be open, even if only ajar. Classroom doors had windows, and none of those windows could be covered; anybody should be able to look through them. Nor the doors locked when there were people in the room. Totally private activities could only happen in the bathroom—which is why we had to watch out lest kids sneak off there together. But the openness accommodated access. It didn’t hinder it.

Yeah, I’d get kids and parents who wanted private meetings. Well, they were only gonna be so private: Anybody could overhear, and anybody could walk in. And they had to be okay with that. If that’s not good enough… it’s how everybody got treated, so you can’t argue it’s not fair.

Other workplaces have had similar policies. The “three in a room” rule, the “two leaders” rule, the “open microphone” rule: All made sure nobody could say anything off the record.

The Graham rule also has a massive blind spot: Say a pastor will only meet one-on-one with men, as following the rule… and he gets propositioned by a gay man. Say that pastor is also gay, but has been hiding this fact from his wife. Turns out the Graham rule hasn’t really been all that necessary in his life. But he’s been hypocritically following it—because it’s about avoiding the appearance of evil. And he’s hoping nobody notices all the other evil he’s been up to.

Frankly if a politician’s gonna insist on a chaperone for any women he meets with, he likewise needs chaperones for any men he meets with. It’s naïve to think otherwise. Temptation can come from any direction. And if you’ve always got a chaperone around—whether you disguise them as aides, security, secretaries, or whatever—you’re providing equal access. Shouldn’t be so much of a problem.

But ultimately our goal should be to become temptation-proof. To be strong enough in our convictions, in our devotion to God, that we don’t need a Graham rule to keep us on the straight ’n narrow. To be so well-known for our good character, people know better than to listen to idle accusations of impropriety.

And to not fret about the appearance of evil. Jesus went to some pretty awful places, and hung out with some really shady characters, in the course of his ministry. Yes, people gossiped about him; yes he cared about that, ’cause he cares about sin. But he knew people will gossip regardless. You can do everything right, and people will invent dirt, ’cause they’re evil like that. Don’t let people-pleasing rule how you live your life. That’s for Jesus. You follow him.