Jesus and fundamentalist dress codes

Kevin Underhill at Lowering the Bar takes a look at one of those “inspirational fine art paintings” of Jesus in the workplace. The painting by Nathan Greene is called “The Senior Partner,” and it shows Jesus shaking hands with a couple of suits in a law office.

“Partners can usually get away with violating a dress code, as long as they aren’t being too outrageous,” Underhill writes. “This is especially true of senior partners, and if the senior partner in question is also the Savior, well, He could wear whatever He wants whenever He wants.”

This reminds me of a story from my days as a student at Timothy Christian High School back in Jersey.

As a private, fundamentalist Christian school, Timothy didn’t just have a list of rules — it had a thick three-ring binder in which the ever-expanding list of rules, rules and more rules could be kept, indexed and updated. The dress code alone took several pages for girls and several more pages for boys. And it was vigilantly updated to ensure that any new fashion trend was quickly forbidden.

Leg-warmers, for instance. They were kind of a big deal for a while there in the early 1980s and were briefly permitted in our dress code. Defenders of leg-warmers argued that they were practical, warming the calves of female students in their three-fingers-below-the-knee dress-code skirts. Plus, they covered up even more of the girls’ treacherous flesh, so it was argued that they advanced the dress-code theme of “modesty.” Alas, though, leg-warmers were also associated with Olivia Newton John (worldly) and Jane Fonda (liberal), and that sealed their fate. The memo forbidding leg-warmers was sent out and added to the three-ring binders kept by teachers and staff.

My senior year brought another new rule involving our lockers. Some kids decorated their lockers with pictures of their favorite pop singers. By that I mean, of course, people like Amy Grant and David Meece. This was a problem because … well, I’m not really sure why it was a problem. But if kids were doing something that wasn’t specifically addressed by a specific rule in the rule book, that usually meant a new rule would be written. And so one was. The new rule said that students were henceforth forbidden to have pictures of people in their lockers.

There are two sides to every game, and we kids knew our role and we played it well. The previous year’s yearbook had a really nice picture of Mr. Smith, the high school administrator, sitting at his desk. Someone, maybe me, made and distributed 50 photocopies of that picture and soon they were hanging in lockers all over the high school.

Mr. Smith was a good sport. “All right, you rascals,” he said. You always knew you weren’t in serious trouble when he used the word “rascals.”

The next memo amended the new rule, replacing the previous memo in the binder. It said that henceforth students were forbidden to have pictures of any person hanging in their locker if that person was not attired according to Timothy’s dress code. That still ruled out Amy Grant (slacks!), but the yearbook photo of Mr. Smith was now permissible.

Our turn: Someone, maybe me, made and distributed 50 photocopies of “Christ at Heart’s Door,” by Warner Sallman, the famous “inspirational” painting pictured above. These pictures of Jesus were soon hanging in lockers all over the high school.

Jesus, you’ll notice, was not attired according to Timothy’s dress code. No collared shirt. No dress pants. No socks or dress shoes. And hair like that would’ve gotten you enough demerits for a week of detention.

That got us called “rascals” again, and Mr. Smith was smiling when he said it. And then, utterly contradicting the spirit of the rule book, he decided that pictures of Jesus in students’ lockers wasn’t something to write any new rules about and he just let it go. Well played, sir.

That round of the rule book game seemed pretty trivial at the time, but in retrospect I was learning a rascally lesson. These dress-code rules, it seemed, were culturally contingent and not — as we’d been led to believe — matters of intrinsic morality or of the “absolute truth” clearly spelled out for us in the King James English of the Word of God.

Anyway, back to Underhill. He notes that “inspirational” artwork is certainly a legitimate form of free expression, but that the message of “The Senior Partner” might not be something an employer would want to express in the workplace:

[Greene's] website does go on to suggest that “[d]isplaying this piece prominently in your business will convey your Christian principles and values to your business associates, customers, and staff.” It certainly would do that, and depending on the business, it might also get you sued or at least serve as evidence if you get sued for religious discrimination. Replace the Savior’s image with one of Vishnu or Muhammad or whoever and imagine this hanging in your managing partner’s office, or in all the partners’ offices, and you might have a better sense of the problem.

Flip the script. That’s always good advice. If you want to know if something is wise or fair or advisable, imagine how it would seem to you if the shoe was on the other foot. “Do unto others as you would have them …” etc.

It’s troubling that American Christians have lost the habit of doing that, or even of understanding what Underhill is suggesting there. The kind of “Christian business” likely to hang such a painting in the workplace would be the first to cry “persecution” if anyone complained about it (or even if anyone failed to express sufficient enthusiasm about it). But if the business down the street hung Underhill’s hypothetical version of the painting showing Vishnu, well, they’d cry “persecution” over that too.

And if no one, anywhere, had any such paintings? That’d be “persecution” too.

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  • AnonaMiss


  • Elizabeth Coleman

    Well if they worked near my building, they might have come to my workplace, since we had a handful of guys from nearby offices join in regularly on their lunch breaks. I could always tell when a new one showed up, because they’d come up to the front counter looking nervous, and asking awkwardly for my boss. Inevitably, the prayer was always started, so I’d just point them to the back.
    (I got to be pretty good at spotting the Muslims to came to the shop, though there were always exceptions. The guy who replaced me when I quit is a Christian from Ethiopia, and I had an awkward moment while training him when I indicated he could go to the back room with the other guys, and he told me he didn’t do that. On the other end of things, the boss had one friend who looked like your standard issue White Male Football Fan, who had converted to Islam.)

  • AnonaMiss

    But… but lusting after someone of the ‘right’ sex is a sin too… so wouldn’t it be better if everyone presented so androgynously that you would never assume anyone was a member of the ‘right’ sex, so you would never lust?

    Shaved heads and skirts for all!

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    What’s “neo-confederate” about a depiction of events from the original Civil War? Looks like original Confederate, not neo-anything to me. Also, what’s “claptrap” about a moment out of history where a man’s compassion overcame the horror of war?

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    No, if you read the blurb on it, it was based on a historical incident.

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    Or “Devil’s Advocate”.

  • Lori

    I read it. Even assuming that the story is true and accurately represented (which is a huge assumption given the RTC approach to history), that doesn’t change anything.

    There’s a reason that Greene chose to depict a moment of a Confederate soldier helping his fallen enemy. That painting is saying something more than, “That Richard Kirkland. What a great guy.” You are free to ignore that if you so choose.

  • Lori

    One of the major components of the Neo-Confederate mindset is to recast the Confederacy as noble, brave and true, even in sad defeat. That painting could hardly be any more perfect for over the mantle in Casa de Lost Cause.

  • ShifterCat

    There’s also a typo in which Lamby the Lamb is referred to as a “fiend”.

  • Ross Thompson

    I’m pretty sure a couple of people I went to school with got suspended for having dyed hair. But this was 20 years ago, and south of the border, so who knows if that’s relevant…

  • Daniel

    That’s no typo. Lamby the Lamb is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Lamby the Lamb will cut you if you beak your oath. She’s out to get ewe.

  • Daniel

    Only if he’s wearing a sheepskin coat.

  • Daniel

    You’d never get through it. Every time you think you’re half way through you realise you still have another half way to go, and then you’ve got another half way to go, and so on.
    By selling this book and the shirts separately, Xeno was able to make a nice pile. Of course, he was never clear exactly how much he needed to make a pile, which is how he evaded tax for so long.

  • Ross

    I suspect that proper original-formula Confederates kinda knew that their cause wasn’t all that noble.

  • arcseconds

    If you can double the speed of your buttoning with every button, you would in fact get through it.

    (1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 … = ? )

  • Lori

    They certainly believed that their slaves wanted to kill them because of their “cause”. I’m not sure that’s the same thing as having the self-awareness to know that they were in fact horrible human beings. It does mean that they didn’t see their own lives through the heavily Vaselined mint julep and magnolia lens that their modern day apologists use to view them.

  • caryjamesbond

    I will point out that, you know- its a painting of a real guy who did a really nice thing for his enemies, and that a Sergeant in the Confederate army was almost certainly not a slaveowner or even fighting for slavery, since the belief in “a second revolution” was pretty predominant among the lower ranks of the Confederate Army. Chances are he would’ve subscribed to the “Because y’all are down here” form of patriotism.

    The Civil War was about slavery. It doesn’t mean everyone was fighting to end slavery, or for slavery- particularly as what he did occurred during the Battle of Fredricksburg, when even Lincoln’s official (if not personal) position was that the war was to reinstate the Union.

    Anyway, it looks like the guy did a really freaking brave and cool thing that should be admired, even if he was fighting for the bad guys.

  • caryjamesbond

    Assuming the story is true (and the arguments against it seem to be that he wasn’t “Mentioned in Dispatches” which was the confederate version of a medal for valor, which was usually given out for military valor, not nobility of spirit)…It pretty much went down exactly that way. .

    Also, the vast, vast, VAST majority of dead and wounded in front of Maryes Heights would’ve been union- at Fredricksburg, the Union troops performed FOURTEEN failed assaults at a bunch of confederate troops massed behind a stone wall. Any confederate dead or wounded would’ve been behind the stone wall, not in front of it- and there weren’t many confederate dead in the first place.

  • caryjamesbond

    As I have been reliably informed by several scots:

    “If you wear underpants with it, its a skirt.”

  • Hawker40

    A couple decades ago, my favorite car mechanic informed me that he made exceptions of his “No Checks” rule if the car did NOT have a “Jesus Fish”; not because Christians were dishonest, but because people displaying ‘Jesus Fish’ emblems were.
    Step one of any con game is to get the trust of the mark; loudly proclaiming your Christianity seems one way of doing so.

  • Hawker40

    “The louder he proclaimed his trustworthyness, the faster we counted our spoons”

  • Betwixt-and-Between

    “…boys had to wear slacks and a dress…”
    That was an interesting mental image.

  • alfgifu

    My old school used to let the students vote on issues such as dress codes, occasionally.* When the rules were changed to allow girls to wear trousers, I suggested in a class debate that if we really did believe in equality we should also permit the boys to wear skirts. I got laughed at quite a lot.

    * It was a fairly transparent illusion – we knew they wouldn’t be asking us if they hadn’t already decided to make a change they thought we’d like.

  • Lori

    Again, my point is not about the guy, let alone every Confederate soldier. My point is about the painting of the guy, which is not the same thing.

  • Lori

    Yup. And there’s a reason why Greene chose to paint that particular battle and the story told about that particular soldier. The battle and the story aren’t my issue, the painting is.

  • Carstonio

    The obvious goal of the painting isn’t to commemorate Kirkland, or soldiers in any war who perform humanitarian acts for their opponents. It’s to allow the genealogical and ideological descendants of the slaveowners to believe that the Southern cause was just.

  • caryjamesbond

    So a specific painting about a specific event that was actually pretty damn awesome is now ideological because of something unrelated to the painting?

    Look- I don’t like neo-confederates, I don’t like the confederacy, I don’t like glorifying the Confederacy-

    But given that the two other historical paintings he has are “Lincoln at Antietam,” and all his other paintings are of Jesus, I don’t really think your neo-confederate claim has a leg to stand on-
    To whit:

    “The fact that the soldier offering aid is a Confederate and the soldier receiving it is Union wasn’t decided by a coin flip.”

    Except its an accurate portrayal of an actual historical event.

    ” I would agree with your interpretation except for the mass of Confederate battle flags in the background, and that the only dead and dying in the picture are Union troops. One of them is reaching out to the clean, neat, tidy and chivalrous Confederate soldier magnanimously helping his defeated enemies. ”

    Except that’s pretty much exactly how the Battle of Fredricksburg went down.

    In other words, you’re taking a historically accurate portrayal of a historical event and saying its glorifying the Confederacy BECAUSE of its accuracy.

    Is he a shitty artist? Yeah. Do I like his theology? Insofar as I can grasp it from paintings, its fairly bog-standard insipid “Jesus n’ angels love us and take care of us.” I don’t think you can even specifically claim he’s a fundie premillenial dispensationalist- nothing in his paintings or the blurbs below would be unacceptable in a Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist household of people with very bad taste.

    In other words, you’re reading wayyyy too much into this guys paintings. I think Thomas Kincade is a shitty painter too. I don’t think he’s a racist neo-confederate apologist.

  • Carstonio

    And I think you’re reading way too much into my post. I didn’t accuse the artist of being a neo-Confederate. I was saying that the painting is an attempt to pander to people with those attitudes.

    Is Greene the same artist behind the blatantly theocratic image of Jesus with the Founding Fathers, with Clinton and Obama and FDR portrayed as anti-Christian? If so, that’s hardly insipid.

  • gimpi1

    “Flip the script. That’s always good advice. If you want to know if something is wise or fair or advisable, imagine how it would seem to you if the shoe was on the other foot.”

    Good advice. This was my mother’s take on many things in life. If it wouldn’t be OK for someone you disapprove to do, it’s not OK for you.

  • sidhe

    “Those were the times I carried you. And that ditch between footprints over there? That’s where I dragged you for a while – you got heavy, what can I say? I dumped you behind that dune while I got ice cream.”