CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - Billy Graham is back in the news – and all over Twitter – for something he did 69 years ago.
That would have been 1948, when the Charlotte-born evangelist and his staff came up with the "Modesto Manifesto" – rules to keep them free of scandal as they traveled around the country spreading the Gospel. One of those rules: Never be alone with a woman who is not your wife.
Now called the "Billy Graham Rule," it is being debated anew in the wake of news that Vice President Mike Pence follows it.
We know that because the Washington Post – in a recent profile of Pence's wife, Karen – mentioned that, back in 2002, then-U.S. Rep. Pence had been quoted in The Hill newspaper that he never ate alone with a woman other than his wife. Pence also said at the time that he wouldn't attend any event where alcohol was being served unless his wife was with him.
That lit up the Twitter-sphere. And in recent days a host of media outlets – including The New Yorker, Christianity Today, People Magazine, NPR, Gospel Herald, even the satirical Onion – have been weighing in on Pence and the Billy Graham Rule.
In fact, Graham and his staff agreed to four rules during those 1948 meetings in Modesto, Calif. The other three dealt with money (be financially accountable), crowd size (be honest) and local churches (work with them, not against them).
Whatever you think of the rules or their application circa 2017, they kept Graham himself largely untainted by scandal his entire career.
Evangelists who did not follow rules about money and sex fell into disgrace before Billy Graham (see Henry Ward Beecher and Aimee Semple McPherson) and since (remember PTL's Jim Bakker and televangelist Jimmy Swaggert?).
"Nearly all evangelists at that time – including us – were supported by love offerings taken at the meetings," Graham is quoted about the scene in 1948 in the Christianity Today story. "The temptation to wring as much money as possible out of an audience, often with strong emotional appeals, was too great for some evangelists. It was a system that was easy to abuse – and led to the charge that evangelists were only in it for the money."
Or for the sex. The New Yorker got on the phone with evangelist Will Graham, Billy's grandson, who explained that times were different when his famous grandfather, then young and handsome and charismatic, was coming up.
"Think about 1948 ... The image of an evangelist ... was kind of synonymous with what you'd think of as a used-care salesman," the young Graham said. "When my grandfather would check into a hotel, a man would go inside the room and look under the bed and in the closets. What they were afraid of was that someone had snuck into the room, like a naked lady with a photographer, and she'd jump into his arms and he'd take a picture, and they'd frame my granddaddy."
In 2017, is the Billy Graham Rule sexist, a way to perpetuate the old boys' network and keep women out of the corridors of power? Or is it a safeguard against scandal and straying on your mate?
The initial reaction after the Karen Pence profile was against the Rule.
The Indianapolis Star (in the Pences' home state): "Mike Pence's 'Billy Graham Rule' has Internet yelling sexism."
The Washington Post (in a follow-up story): "The religious reasons Mike Pence won't eat alone with women don't add up."
Christian Today: "Mike Pence won't meet with women alone. Here's why he's wrong."
Faith blogger Rachel Held Evans, who's popular with millennials, tweeted this: "Making it a RULE fails to make a distinction between a professional lunch meeting at Panera & a late candlelit dinner."
Some, though, came to the Rule's defense.
Writing on The Resurgent, a site for conservative activists, blogger and Fox News pundit Erick Erickson said he and many other Christians follow the Billy Graham Rule: "It keeps gossip from growing, prevents false accusations and respects my wife."
Charles C.W. Cooke in The National Review lauded Pence for his commitment to his wife: "There's a decency at play there. There's a humility, too. Good for the vice-president. He's made his vows, and he's sure as hell gonna keep 'em."
Among the pro-Rule tweets, there was this from Dan Bongino. "Stupid Liberal Logic: Bill Clinton is a hero because he loves WOMEN. Mike #Pence is a goat because he loves A WOMAN."
And from Ben Shapiro: "Leftists have no evidence of Mike Pence denying women opportunities. So they just assume it because they hate religious people."
The Onion had the most fun with the debate, running this faux headline: "Mike Pence Asks Waiter To Remove Mrs. Butterworth From Table Until Wife Arrives."
Even today, at 98, Billy Graham follows the Rule in his mountaintop Montreat home, his grandson told The New Yorker.