This past July, Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster received criticism for refusing a female Mississippi Today reporter, Larrison Campbell, the opportunity to shadow him for a day on his campaign trail. Foster refused because he honors the Billy Graham rule; in his words, he seeks to “avoid any decision that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage” (Washington Post). He insisted that he would not work with her unless she brought a male colleague along. The third-party rule is common practice in Christian culture, but is somewhat foreign to non-Christians.
Controversy ensued. Some defended Foster, citing that it was a protective measure intended to honor his wife. Others pointed out that Campbell was trying to do a job, and that the rule assumes that either Foster can’t trust himself, Foster’s wife doesn’t trust him, or that he doesn’t trust any other woman besides his wife.
In response to the criticism, Foster tweeted this:
As I anticipated, the liberal left lost their minds over the fact I choose not to be alone with another woman. They can’t believe that even in 2019, someone still values their relationship with their wife and upholds their Christian Faith. #msgov #mselex
Foster seems to be attempting to honor his wife and his faith, but he also confers negative blanket statements onto anyone who disagrees with him. Instead of engaging his critics to explain how he sees his decision as his faith in action, he assumes none of his critics value marriage or faith, and this offended many people.
Foster lost a valuable opportunity to create a dialogue. Why fully decline the offer? Why not bring along his wife? Or another member of his campaign? Surely there must have been at least one person who could have accompanied them for one day. Instead of engaging the public through the article Campbell would have written, he received negative national attention by refusing to work with her at all or find a compromise. Even if Campbell disagreed with Foster in most ways, perhaps he could have impressed her with Christ-like empathy and love for his wife and for God. Unfortunately, the majority of public opinion seems to believe Foster appears sexist and antiquated instead of righteous.
I think that, paired with discernment, Christians can learn how to bring old rules into a new era. The Billy Graham rule can still be wise in many circumstances. But how do we bring a standard of conduct from 1948 into this century? How do we become “all things to all people”?
An example of a person navigating this tough terrain is Billy Graham himself. In my research, I was shocked to discover that the one exception to his own third-party rule was to have lunch with Hillary Clinton. Graham ministered directly to thirteen presidents and First Ladies throughout his life, and stated publicly that he considered the Clintons his friends. In the book The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy note these interactions between the two:
In an interview in January 2007, on the eve of her announcement that she was running for president, Hillary Clinton stated that Graham was a critical voice in helping her forgive her husband. Clinton recalled that Graham was “incredibly supportive to me personally. And he was very strong in saying, ‘I really understand what you’re doing and I support you.’ He was just very personally there for me. I remember it very vividly, on a couple of different occasions.”
She continued, “The entire world was judging my decisions and my actions and there weren’t very many people who, frankly, were understanding, and he was. He said, ‘You know, forgiveness is the hardest thing that we’re called upon to do. And we all face it at some point in our lives and I’m just really proud of you for taking it on.”
As the junior senator from New York, she appeared onstage at Graham’s New York City crusade in 2005. “She held my hand the whole time in our private time,” Graham recalled. “And she was just so sweet. She is different from the Hillary you see in the media. There is a warm side to her…and a spiritual one.”
Billy Graham and Hillary Clinton really respected and cared for each other, despite their many differences, and this was radical information to me — I’ve heard Graham supporters aggressively malign Clinton and her supporters, and vice versa. Graham’s genuine love for Clinton struck me as radical for many reasons, but especially because he noted in his autobiography, Just As I Am, that, with the exception of his wife, she is the only woman in his entire career that he shared a private meal with, albeit in a public dining room. Graham deigned that he had finally encountered a situation that required him to mediate his own fixed standards of conduct.
This adaption of an infamous rule suggests that even good, time-honored rules need “updating”. In 1948, Billy Graham adopted his third-party rule at a time when there were fewer women in the workplace, in ministry, and in positions of power. Overall, women and men were more segregated in 1948 than in 2019, and so there were greater stigmas attached to a man in power being seen with a woman who wasn’t his wife. In 1948, the rule protected Billy Graham’s reputation. It designated him a “safe” and godly man at a time when sexual violence was more common and more even under-reported, and it allowed him to build healthy relationships with both men and women.
In 2019, this rule seems antiquated to culture at large because women are much more involved in the workplace and other social spheres. A man would have to work harder to avoid being alone with a female co-worker and vice versa, and to a degree, workplace interactions between men and women have become incrementally normalized. In Robert Foster’s case, following the seventy-year-old Billy Graham rule rigidly made him appear sexist. Within a culture that now views men and women working together as a norm, Foster’s refusal to work with a woman (or find some compromise acceptable to both parties) and his aggressive response to critics made him appear unsafe, unapproachable, and out-of-touch with some of his own constituents.
The Billy Graham rule is often wise, but it’s not directly Biblically-mandated. The rule stops being Biblical as soon as it becomes a thorny moral wall that limits a person’s ability to love instead of a boundary that enables a person to reach out and create healthy relationships. Billy Graham used the rule to nurture unique friendships with people unlike him, but Foster used it to push away people with differences.
Notably, Jesus constantly broke rigid social rules between men and women by confronting taboos in public and private places. To the shock and horror of other people present, Jesus, a single man, allowed Mary, a single woman with a past of sexual sin, to perform the intimate act of anointing his feet with perfumed oil and drying them with her hair in the home of a Pharisee.
Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:44-47, ESV).
This was a massive social breach on multiple cultural levels, and others had trouble seeing past the sexual stigmas, but Jesus chose to transgress inane cultural standards to accept one woman’s love and cover her sin with his own love.
Paul adds to this conversation, insisting that Christians must be able to move fluidly through cultures to minister, learning, respecting, and — when possible — adopting the standards of behavior within one’s cultural context.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Navigating standards between Christian subculture and culture at large is difficult. Washing feet and sharing lunch can be uncomfortable. But this kind of vulnerability is radical and essential. Boundaries are not one-size-fits-all, and boundaries must change as people grow and move through life. We need to take a good look at the standards for behavior in Christian culture and ask if our rules are enabling us to interact with non-Christians and other Christians well, or if they are excusing us from interactions with people who are harder for us to understand and love.
Gibbs, N., & Duffy, M. (2008). The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House [Google Books]. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=nMBx0IZvw0kC&printsec=frontcover&dq=the preacher and the presidents&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiU6bvR97_mAhXNVN8KHcxLBaYQ6AEwAHoECAUQAg#v=onepage&q=hillary clinton &f=false
Graham, W. F., & Graham, B. (1997). Just As I Am: the Autobiography of Billy Graham. London: HarperCollins.
Hesse, M. (2019, July 16). Perspective | The ‘Billy Graham rule’ doesn’t honor your wife. It demeans her – and all women. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-billy-graham-rule-doesnt-honor-your-wife-it-demeans-her–and-all-women/2019/07/11/c1ac14e6-a380-11e9-bd56-eac6bb02d01d_story.html.