Recently the Washington Post published a profile of second lady Karen Pence, a nice but rather non-incendiary piece. Nonetheless, various journalists and weigher-inners have set their keyboards ablaze responding to a single sentence, “In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill 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.”
Many on the Left have deemed Vice President Pence’s practice raging misogyny, designed to box women out of positions of power, an argument that conveniently ignores how Pence somehow managed to deem Sue Ellspermann worthy of being his lieutenant governor without wining and dining her at a St Elmo Steakhouse table for two.
Others are convinced that Pence’s dining policy is a manifestation of rape culture and a title VII violation. (No word yet on whether Pence’s “only my wife rubs sunscreen on my back” policy is a violation of the Geneva Convention.) Pence’s defenders on the Right, however, insist he is simply taking wise measures to safeguard his marriage and avoid the slightest whiff of scandal.
Why do we see such drastically different responses to Pence’s behavior? Surely people’s preexisting party affiliations play a role in whether they deem his actions prudent or prudish. But, as Damon Linker notes in a recent tweet-stream, this is not really a clash of political ideologies. It’s a clash of anthropologies, a clash of two incompatible worldviews concerning human nature.
The Left Doesn’t Believe in Evil, the Right Does
Christians, like the vice president and second lady, believe man is inherently evil, that he is conceived and born as an enemy of God, and that his evil will only grow unless it is restrained by some outside force. That would include threats of punishment from the government or, even better, God granting him a new nature that loves God and his commandments and therefore battles against the desires of the old flesh.
Many liberal secularists, on the other hand, believe that man is inherently good, and that those who work evil simply need to have their corrupted moral settings restored to default. Man doesn’t need restraints to be righteous. He simply needs to remember what he is.
By way of analogy, consider the common goldfish. There’s an old belief, perhaps invented by scheming carnival workers, that goldfish grow in proportion to their surroundings. Buy yourself a Dr. Seuss-size fish bowl and you’ll get a Seuss-size goldfish. Build your little swimmer a spacious garden pond, however, and he’ll rival Big Bob, the hangry British goldfish.
This is how conservatives view human nature. Constrain us in a small fish bowl and we’ll commit small sins. However, give us an enormous aquarium, with few boundaries to curb our wickedness, and we will work monstrous iniquities.
Secular liberals, on the other hand, believe what is true of goldfish is not true of humans—that having unlimited space to grow will not result in unlimited growth. In their minds, it doesn’t matter if a man has five or five million opportunities to sin. As long as he has enough opportunities to be good, he will be.
Christians believe that man is corrupt and that unrestrained power, wealth, and other things will accelerate his pre-existing corruption. Secularists believe that man is corrupted by external factors, such as oppression, injustice, climate change (for real, you guys), poverty, and illiteracy.
Christians support their position by appealing to the word of God and gesturing broadly in the direction of every civilization in human history. Rulers such as Leopold II, we are wont to note, had plenty of wealth and education and used them to commit genocide against the Congolese. Secularists, on the other hand, support their position by referencing the Unitarian Universalist website and pointing to YouTube videos of toddlers hugging kittens.
This Is Why the Two Think Oppositely about Boundaries
Because of these opposite views of human nature, Christians and secularists view discipline and boundaries far differently. For believers, these things are blessings that serve to restrain the worst parts of our nature. For secularists, these things are curses that deny the very goodness of human nature, insisting people need outside help to lead righteous lives.
In the mind of the Christian, Pence’s dining policy is helpful. Even if a Christian man doesn’t feel the slightest twinge of lust for the woman sitting across the table from him, he knows things can change. Loneliness, time, distance, alcohol, exhaustion, stress, or simply a bad day can easily accelerate the most dormant of his desires, especially if there is nothing to constrain them.
Likewise, men who get comfortable dining with other women sometimes become men who get comfortable spending time with other women, and they sometimes become men who get comfortable spending naked time with other women. So it’s wise to have a better insurance policy than “I’ll just hope I never change my mind about staying faithful,” the same insurance policy that’s failed millions of men and women throughout history.
For those who believe in man’s inherent goodness, however, Pence’s policy is an unwarranted accusation against the inherent goodness of their hearts. “In my very nature, I am a faithful person,” the secularist thinks. “I’m not a weak-willed deviant like Mike Pence who can only conceive of women as sex objects and who can’t separate sharing his body with a woman and sharing a Bloomin’ Onion with her.”
‘I Believe in Avoiding The Moment’
Pence’s method of safeguarding his marriage deserves heaping piles of scorn and mockery, they believe, because it denies the most fundamental part of their worldview—that the inherently virtuous man can easily defeat temptation by overpowering it with the purity of his heart.
For Christians, however, Pence’s behavior affirms a fundamental truth of our worldview—namely, that you don’t triumph over temptation by overpowering your sinful nature, but by outsmarting it. When your sinful nature tries to fool you into thinking that you’ll be fine in a potentially problematic situation because your self-control is very strong, you win the battle by not falling for the trick, by fleeing from temptation, and by setting your boundaries well before the battle begins.
One doesn’t need to confess to the Trinity to understand the value of this approach. It’s one that Ta-Nehisi Coates, a self-identified atheist, articulated quite beautifully in 2012:
I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding ‘the moment.’ I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a ‘good man.’ But I am prepared to be an honorable one.
The same conflict of worldviews also explains the different responses to Pence’s clear intention of avoiding scandal. For Christians who believe that people are born with a desire to lie and slander, it makes sense to avoid putting yourself in a position where those who would act on those desires could do so credibly, especially when many innocent people have suffered from this.
Those who believe in man’s intrinsic uprightness, however, see every shattered reputation and ruined career as an aberration and insist that Pence’s paranoid attempts to preserve his office, his marriage, and his wife’s honor are an unfair burden to the countless imaginary women who tragically can’t advance their careers or advocate their causes until the vice president meets them after office hours for date night at Bucca di Beppos.
The Furor Also Reveals Divergence About Redemption
The fury over Pence’s 15-year-old comments has also revealed another division between Christians and secular liberals. While Christians believe all men are evil, they also believe that all men are redeemable through the forgiving blood of Jesus. Pence’s critics, however, indicate quite the opposite—all men are inherently good but, somehow, not all men can be redeemed. In a manufactured irony, it’s Pence’s desire to maintain a safe distance from sin that reveals him to be among the reprobate.
But while the marriage-safeguarding practices of the Pence family might horrify those who, quite conveniently, had already deemed the vice president to be among their enemies, those mockers and scoffers would do well to remember that, had another notable American politician abided by the “no alone time with any woman but my wife” principle, the dreaded Mike Pence would perhaps still be governing Indiana.
Many Americans have long thought Hillary Clinton turned a blind eye to her husband’s deplorable treatment of women in order to continue riding his coattails in pursuit of her political ambitions. If President Clinton had never been alone with Juanita Broaddrick or Paula Jones or Kathleen Willey or Monica Lewinsky, he wouldn’t have saddled his wife with the reputation for being an opportunist and enabler. Without that extra weight, perhaps she could have found enough votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to keep those creepy Christian Pences out of Washington.