Pence’s policy is very similar to one adopted by Billy Graham at the start of his ministry (which came to be known as the Billy Graham rule). The revelation of Pence’s strategy in a Washington Post story last week has caused quite a stir. The Post article was simply re-stating something that was printed 15 years ago however publications like Fortune and Newsday have slammed Pence, and, as the Atlantic pointed out some celebrities have responded very strongly.
What’s the big deal you might ask?
From time to time I listen to an Australian radio program called “The Minefield” in which two guys (usually with a guest) try to tackle some of the most complex moral issues. Waleed Aly is a Moslem and Scott Stephens obviously has some kind of Christian heritage, but they try to tackle the issues from a secular/philosophical framework. This week they were talking about Mike Pence’s policy.
Something Waleed Aly said got me thinking. He suggested that Mike Pence’s strategy to manage risk in the area of his sexuality is so offensive because it challenges the myth that “sexual desire and even sexual behaviour is something that is entirely at the mercy of our own self control.”
Aly points out that we all know that “sex sells” and works at a level that is “pre-logical,” yet as a culture we have a deep economic interest in objectifying people and the belief that there is no moral effect in this approach to sexuality. He suggested;
I wonder if what Pence is doing is articulating, just kind of, a radically different view of these things that doesn’t fit with the conceit of late capitalism and we don’t like it very much so we strike out against it in these kind of virulent ways.
I was fascinated by the dialogue and the insight into one of the big lies that seems to go unchallenged in our society…
What Mike Pence did in putting in a structure to avoid the possibility of temptation was actually an acknowledgement of the fact that all of us can be put in situations where we don’t make the choices we would ordinarily want to make.
The myth of self control is that a person is able to make fully rational choices at all times. We can’t, and we don’t.
Last year I wrote about a bestselling book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierny. The book pointed to current research that clearly demonstrates that willpower is limited.
The research also shows that our capacity to make rational decisions, our willpower, can be depleted or strengthened.
We need to hear this. Millions of dollars are invested under the pretext that we are able to exert self control, and a lot of people are getting very rich because we can’t.
In my home state of Tasmania, Australia. problem gamblers make up 56.5 percent of people playing poker machines at any one time.
The term problem “gambler” shouldn’t really be used in relationship with poker machines, because gambling implies chance and poker machines are not based on chance but on algorithms which guarantee the house ultimately never loses… In Tasmania of the $98 million dollars lost by problem “gamblers” each year, $85 million is lost on Poker Machines.
Sadly whether its the advertising industry, the fast food industry, the pornography industry or the gambling industry, people are getting disgustingly rich by perpetuating a myth that we all know to be false.
One of the things that the two authors of the book on willpower had to come to terms with, as stated agnostics, is that religious people tended to be more self controlled than non religious people. They reported that:
Religious people are less likely than others to develop unhealthy habits, like getting drunk, engaging in risky sex, taking illicit drugs, and smoking cigarettes. They’re more likely to wear seat belts, visit a dentist, and take vitamins. They have better social support, and their faith helps them cope psychologically with misfortunes. And they have better self-control.
Part of the reason Christians are able to exercise self control is that they have a worldview that helps them understand the different forces that shape them as human beings, and therefore they have more effective strategies and supports to enable them to manage themselves.
Rather than feeling like we should always be “in control,” Christians understand that there is a normal part of every person that seeks to minimize pain and maximize pleasure (what the Bible calls “the flesh”), and there is also a part of every person that is bigger than time and space (what the Bible calls “the spirit.”) The bible indicates that these forces are in conflict with each other (Galatians 5:17), and that while the spirit might be willing, the flesh is often weak (Matthew 26:41).
While it is clear that a biblical worldview calls us to “carry our own load,” (Galatians 6:8) and doesn’t excuse us from individual responsibility for our actions, it also assumes an underlying need for the kind of deep fellowship that helps us to stay on track, assuming we need to “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
It is this interdependence and social support that the researchers believe contributes to the increased willpower of religious people. Paradoxically, the Christian assumption that you can’t exercise self control at all times increases the likelihood that you will.
The very thing Mike Pence is doing in setting boundaries and calling on social support to help his decisions to be consistent, is the very thing that builds the self control that society says we should all have.
The Christian church is meant to be the kind of place that re-enforces the best parts of our nature and helps reduce the worst. Sadly as we all know only too well, that isn’t always true, but nonetheless that is what the church is meant to be.
If the church is to be the kind of people who make God’s wisdom known (Ephesians 3:10), we need to develop the kind of real fellowship that allows us to be human beings and admit our weaknesses. We need to confront the lie of self-sufficiency and unlimited willpower, and carry one another’s burdens.
I might not love everything that Mike Pence stands for, but I’m impressed at his self awareness and choice to recognize his own limitations.