Uncovering part of those church modesty debates

As I have mentioned many times here at GetReligion, Deacon Greg Kandra’s blog “The Deacon’s Bench” is must reading for anyone who is is seeking a rather light-hearted, but very newsy, look at what’s happening in Catholicism and in religious life in general. What we have here is a second-career Catholic clergyman, a permanent deacon, who in his previous career was a 26-year veteran with CBS News who won two Emmys, two Peabody Awards, etc., etc.

This guy knows church life and he also has a gift for spotting the strange twist that can turn an important subject in religious life into a valid news story.

This brings us to the illustration with this post, which is connected to the, uh, top of this 2011 column that I wrote for Scripps Howard:

Deacon Greg Kandra was well aware that modern Americans were getting more casual and that these laidback attitudes were filtering into Catholic pews.

Still, was that woman who was approaching the altar to receive Holy Communion really wearing a Hooters shirt?

Yes, she was.

When did Catholics, he thought to himself, start coming to Mass dressed for a Britney Spears concert? Had he missed a memo or something?

Now, this is precisely the kind of pew-level subject that I have noticed — in 25 years of writing a weekly religion-news column — gets a rise out of ordinary readers and, needless to say, clergy. Thus, I was interested when veteran religion-beat pro Michelle Boorstein addressed this topic the other day in a news feature for The Washington Post.

Yes, the anecdotal lede centered on life in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, where the Sunday bulletin notes: “Dignity & Decorum: Please try not to wear beach shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thank you.”

But the story, to its credit, is after bigger game:

Summer in our sweltering region forces a theological question: How does God feel about exposed shoulders in a house of worship? Or toes? Or some glimpse of thigh? …

In general, casual has pummeled formal everywhere in America, from airplanes to offices. But places of worship — where debates on modesty are not confined to the summer months — may be the final frontier for questions about what constitutes overly risque. And those questions have recently sprung to new life.

A popular campaign aimed at young evangelical women called “Modest is Hottest” has triggered backlash by devout younger women who see the slogan as sexist. When the Bible calls for “modesty,” they argue, it refers to displays of things like wealth and is describing the depth of one’s spirit, not their neckline. Teaching women that their value rises if they have more clothes on is objectifying, a torrent of essays have argued.

“A woman’s breasts and buttocks and thighs all proclaim the glory of the Lord,” said Sharon Hodde Miller, a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School whose critique of “modest is hottest” in the online evangelical magazine Christianity Today was one of the best-read of recent years. “Modesty is an orientation of the heart, first and foremost. It begins with putting God first. To look at an outfit and say if it’s modest or immodest, I’m not sure you can do that.”

Yes, there is even a political angle to this, with readers being assured that the modesty folks are yearning for the good old days and a more conservative culture.

So take that, all of you scribes — female and male — who worry that skimpy clothing in public life tends to lead to the objectifying of women’s bodies. And what if warnings about modesty drive away potential church members in an age of declining statistics in religious institutions?

Particularly today as institutional religion bleeds members, many churches — even some theologically conservative ones — advertise that dress is “come as you are.”

“We don’t want clothes to ever be a barrier. That’s one reason we don’t talk about it,” said the Rev. Don Davidson of First Baptist Church of Alexandria.

Some even argue that informal clothing signals not a new lack of respect for institutional religion but a new genuineness and
familiarity.

There are all kinds of angles considered in this story, but the key voices that are missing (and this is big) belong to the actual writers, most of them women, who have been making a theological and cultural case for modest clothing. It appears that there are judgmental people prowling the pews, but — at the level of publications and debates — none of these women have any ideas in their heads.

In other words, there are debates going on out there. Good. That’s a news story.

But are there articulate people on both sides? What is the content of this debate? I mean, other than this interesting quote near the end:

Discussions about possible sins of immodesty inevitably lead to discussions about another sin: judging.

“Jesus is most strong when he speaks about judging people,” said Johnnie Moore, youth pastor at the evangelical Liberty University, noting students have come to his services in pajamas. That said, he feels religious and secular Americans are joining forces over concern about an oversexualized youth culture. “Generally speaking, you shouldn’t come to church as you would to a club,” he said.

Just saying.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • All4Life

    WOW! You’ve got to be kidding! To me, a Catholic woman, this is not about judging one another, this is about caring and loving, God first and others second. God being the Creator of the universe and to whom all the host of heaven bow to constantly, is worthy of our wearing fitting attire. Loving one another calls for us to being clothed in public, especially in church, in such a way as to NOT cause others to trip and stumble. One should neither over dress or under dress. The point of Mass is to come into the presence of God to worship and adore Him.

    • tmatt

      Yes, that is the ISSUE. But what did you think of the journalism angle of the post, the coverage in that WPost story?

      • bsjy

        The journalist is using the good to oppose the best. Of course all are welcomed regardless of their clothing, but where we are when we first enter is not where we should be if we come back regularly.

        Church is just not the place to be risque, arch, ironic or any of the other postures affected by our cultural elites, including journalists. The WaPo writer covers herself but her view comes through loud and clear: don’t you EVER tell me what to wear in Church.

      • All4Life

        What did I think about the journalism angle of the WP story? I think it successfully raises awareness to the fact that the subject is certainly out there. It didn’t strike me as a theological angle so, in so far as it went, the cultural aspect of it was well covered….or not ;)
        I assist with the distribution of Holy Communion on Sundays. I see all kinds of dress styles. I realize, after thinking about it, I never seem to pay much attention to what anyone is wearing. Perhaps I’m lucky to find myself in an appropriately modest congregation, because if someone, especially a woman barely clad, came up to me for communion I would still give her communion and make nothing more of it. We are taught specifically NOT to judge….period. I take that seriously. But, we are also taught to be good examples and I hope and pray that I do that well in serving the Lord. As for the young woman in a hurry coming in lightly clad because of time constraints, my own thoughts on that are simply, Really? The gym is more important than being in the presence of God and taking the time to be serious about it? And still if she approached me for communion, again–I say I would still give her communion and think nothing more of what she was wearing. But, I would be terribly sad that she was in rush mode.

  • Harold Steiner

    In my own experience, those who rail against modesty the loudest do so against any idea that God would ask more of them than simply showing up once a week.

    • tmatt

      And what does that have to do with the journalism angle of the post?

      • Harold Steiner

        Cultural sympathy on the part of the journalists. At the risk of over-generalizing, the broader, progressive culture prefers harmless, non-threatening Christians who resemble the rest of society in every respect but what they do on Sunday mornings. It also finds the imposition of limits on personal behavior, such as dress, to be onerous, especially with women.

        It’s a classic form of bias to only explain the preferred side of a debate. In this case, it’s pretty obvious which side a newspaper like the Washington Post would side with.

        Better?

        • tmatt

          Much better.

  • Darren Blair

    For those of you who do not recall, a few months back there was a push for Mormon women to begin wearing pants to services; the leaders of this push, a small group of feminists, regarded the wearing of skirts and dresses as somehow sexist and so felt that the prevalence of these garments among female members meant that women of the church were second-class citizens.

    In response, the vast majority of Mormons in the United States responded with a collective yawn. Most Mormon women contacted by the media saw nothing wrong with wearing skirts or dresses, and so only a fringe handful on either side of the issue really got wrapped up in the matter. (The congregation I attend serves a major military base, and so it is common to see members of both genders attend services in their uniforms; in that sense, the protest was a moot point as we had already seen some female members of the congregation in pants.)

    I wonder how Ms. Miller would have responded, given her stance on modesty.

  • Enders_Shadow

    Is it really so hard? Simple rule: any so called Christian argument that starts with an appeal to my ‘rights’ has almost certainly lost the plot. We died with Christ, we live to serve him. We need to do what’s best for those around us. In that context wearing sexually exploitive clothing is unfair to people who are distracted by it.
    OTOH, a willingness to accept modest casual ensures that there is no barrier to participation for those who don’t have any better clothing; a church that is expects smart, formal clothing IS rejecting the poor.

  • Elleblue Jones

    I would say that modesty and self respect go hand-in-hand for men and women. This applies in Church and outside of Church. Some things are better left to private moments and many people don’t understand about personal boundaries. We all have personal boundaries and I don’t want to breach someone else’s nor do I appreciate having mine breached. If a society cannot have and maintain a code of dress and conduct in public then we are sunk!

  • athelstane

    It seems that Boorstein had her narrative already – the kind that must come instinctively to major media journalists, especially in a town like this: women struggling to throw off (sexist) clothing expectations in pursuit of their individuality, faced off against judgmental conservatives. Usually men.

    Voices which fit that narrative are given prominent play; those that don’t, well…I even wonder if she interviewed any pro-modesty women. They get an obligatory reference, but they don’t get a direct voice.

  • Bill

    I am reminded of a story told by a young man who went to confession and confessed that he sinned in being in a proximate occasion of sin. Pressed by the priest what the occasion was he replied that a women in front of him was dressed in a most provocative manner. The priest asked why he did not leave that occasion he replied that he couldn’t. Again pressed b the priest of why he couldn’t leave he replied I was at Mass and the pew was filled. A similar situation happened to me. I was startled by a woman who placed herself in the pew in front of me dressed in short shorts, etc. Most distracting to say the least. When in the presence of Lord, dress as if you are in the presence of the King, which in fact you are.


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