A Mississippi politician denied access to a female reporter. What is the ‘Billy Graham rule’ he cited?

State Rep. Robert Foster, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Mississippi, speaks at a candidates forum in Biloxi in June.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

Robert Foster, a first-term Mississippi state representative running for governor, declined to allow a female reporter to cover a campaign trip — that is, unless she brought a male colleague with her.

Foster said in a tweet that the rejection resulted from a pledge he made to his wife that he would follow the “Billy Graham rule,” to “avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage.”

Larrison Campbell, the Mississippi Today reporter denied access, wrote in an article Tuesday night that Foster’s campaign manager told her a male colleague would need to accompany her on the 15-hour trip because the optics of a candidate alone with a woman could be used to insinuate an affair.


Campbell and her editor thought “the request was sexist and an unnecessary use of resources given this reporter’s experience covering Mississippi politics.” Campbell says the practice has unfair and untoward implications for her and other women.

“What you’re saying here is that a woman is a sexual object first and a reporter second,” Campbell told Foster on Thursday on CNN.

Foster has faced a sharp backlash for his action, and for his invocation of the so-called Billy Graham rule. So what exactly is this rule and what is the debate around it?

What is the Billy Graham rule and where does it come from?

The practice is named after William Franklin “Billy” Graham Jr., one of the nation’s most prominent Christian evangelists for more than six decades before his 2018 death. Graham preached to millions and was pastor to presidents.

In 1948, Graham and his ministry established four rules of conduct to shield themselves against the negative repercussions of a variety of misconduct, including financial and sexual, wrote professor of religion at Central Michigan University Sara Moslener in an essay for Religion Dispatches. One of those rules was that a man should never be alone in a room with a woman who was not his wife.


Jonathan Merritt, religion writer and author of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch,” grew up in the Southern Baptist community. His father, who served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 2000s, and other prominent conservative pastors would essentially brag about how they never met alone with women, he said.

Women’s bodies, said Merritt, were viewed as objects of temptation. Religious leaders were meant to be above reproach, and in order to maintain that status they avoided being alone with women, Merritt said.

“Graham was known as an evangelical of impeccable character,” Merritt explained. “He’s No. 1 — he’s the guy, and so it makes total sense that people make an effort to emulate him.”

The evangelical preacher died last year with the practice as a piece of his legacy that has resurfaced in recent years.

Why are people talking about it?

In a 2017 Washington Post profile, comments made in 2002 by Vice President Mike Pence resurfaced about how he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he doesn’t attend events where alcohol is served unless she attends also.

The rule became widely known (rebranded) as “the Pence rule.”

Where does #MeToo come in?

In February 2018, an online survey on the effects of #MeToo by LeanIn, the organization spearheaded by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, found that 60% of male managers said they were uncomfortable mentoring, socializing with or working alone with women in the workplace.

As a result, the Billy Graham rule (or the Pence effect) has informally seeped into workplace culture.

Bloomberg reported, after interviewing more than 30 senior executives last year, that many men across Wall Street have adopted the controversial strategy.

“Women are grasping for ideas on how to deal with it, because it is affecting our careers,” Karen Elinski, senior vice president at Wells Fargo & Co. told Bloomberg.

What are the implications for women?

Around the time Pence’s comments resurfaced, many evangelical women wrote about how the practice can serve to prevent them from advancing in the workplace, Merritt said.

Generally, the way exclusion of women plays out at work is more subtle than in Foster’s case, where he explicitly attributed his decision to the practice, said Kim Elsesser, whose research at UCLA and the book she wrote, “Sex and the Office: Women, Men, and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace,” focused on gender issues in the workplace.

It was true long before #MeToo that some men were hesitant to meet one-on-one with junior female employees, Elsesser said. She has a term for the invisible barriers between men and women at work: “the sex partition.”

Research suggests that the more powerful networks one has, the more one has the opportunity to advance in his or her career. If women don’t have the same access to one-on-one interactions with superiors, they are less likely to be assigned an important task or receive a promotion when opportunities arise, Elsesser said.

“If women don’t have access to those same leaders they’re not going to have the same opportunities at work,” Elsesser said. “It is sexism — it is discrimination if you allow access to someone because of their gender or deny access to someone because of their gender.”

Moreover, sexual harassment in the workplace doesn’t require closed doors to take place, analysts say. Solutions that serve to isolate women from men don’t address the root cause of sexual harassment in the workplace, said Anita Raj, director of UC San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health.

Someone who is going to sexually harass is going to do so regardless, she said. “Only changing the culture and increasing accountability are going to fix it.”

The Billy Graham rule functions primarily in service to a man’s own reputation, “thinly veiled by a condescending veneer of chivalry,” said Moslener in her essay.

“What Graham, Pence and their ilk fail to understand is that neither women nor sexual desire are the problem; the problem is the abuse of male power,” Moslener wrote. “It’s easier to claim that sexual desire is inherently dangerous than to hold powerful men accountable.”