I took off last week to do my almost annual North Carolina horse country bike ride; it was very nice when the rains finally stopped. No obvious bathroom issues. Much going on in the world, I will pick at one little piece of the action that I have been sitting on for a few weeks, what is described as Mike Pence’s marriage rule and the controversy around it.
Pence has been more “out there” than most Vice Presidents this early in a new term of office. We can guess why. He just spoke about Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, very supportive. Anyway, you may have read about his devotion to his wife and the measures he takes in “building a zone around his marriage.” Evidently he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, nor attends events without her if there’s alcohol being served. Sounds nice, in a quaint, little house on the prairie kind of way.
Critics pounce on everything, so why not this? Sounds like he dropped in from another century, some say. Others ask how he could manage states of affair if he couldn’t meet alone with, for example, a female governor or Angela Merkel? More serious critics note that women have a hard enough time advancing in public service or business without being seen as objects of temptation, which Pence’s view might support. Might women not be blocked from evening events or one-on-one meetings with their bosses out of fears of creating the wrong impression? An Office of Compliance official saw this as possibly discriminatory, meaning that women could be prevented from becoming trusted advisors or rise to high positions, solely based on their gender.
Pence has his supporters, and his rule is certainly more admirable than the examples set by Donald Trump or Bill Clinton. And doesn’t it remind us of the traditional Jewish practice of yichud, barring observant men and women from being alone together unless they are married (or sibs or kids?) But those rules mostly apply to cases of seclusion, like not being alone together in an office after work hours, but a man dining with a woman in a public restaurant? That wouldn’t seem to be a problem. Clearly, though, practices that are considered perfectly reasonable among very religious people, like Pence or our own Orthodox, can seem bizarre to outsiders.
Or is the gap in viewpoint more about liberals vs. conservatives than religious vs. non religious? Liberals are optimistic about human nature and think people should be responsible for their behavior and able to resist temptation. As Alexandra Petri wrote in the Post, shouldn’t someone like Pence have “the modicum of self-control involved in eating dinner with another human being and not committing adultery?” Conservatives, on the other hand, have a thing about sin and human fallibility and think we need fences around temptation. As Damon Linker wrote in The Weekly Standard, Pence’s way of living “denies we’re able to restrain ourselves with any reliability. We need God’s help, and we need to keep ourselves away from situations in which we will be tempted to cheat.”
The journalist Andrew Silow-Carroll looks at all this and adds one more voice, that of Cynthia Ozick, who wrote a while back her view that it’s all about male temptation. It has ended up by suppressing women as scholars and communal leaders. If religion, she asks, isn’t developing its adherents’ sense of restraint and propriety, then what’s the point of religion exactly?
I tend to agree with Ozick. So, do I disagree with Pence? It’s hard for someone like me to come down hard on someone who takes religion so seriously, but I think he should be capable of better. And what do you think? Best regards, Bill Rudolph