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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  • Jamoche

    Sounds like my objection to the “Footprints” thing: I don’t mind help when I need it, but I refuse to be carried.

  • Jamoche

    My company’s in that awkward phase between startup and giant, and has reached the point where they think sending out “corporate culture initiatives” with twee logos is a good idea. We’ve already got “leave your ego at the door” – i.e., “shut up and do what you’re told”. So far no “you are empowered”, which usually means “you have no power, just this tiny illusion”.

  • eamonknight

    …and the term “Senior Partner” doesn’t have such a positive ring to it anyway, for anyone who watched “Angel”.

  • guest

    Interesting that that’s true in the UK–definitely not true in the US, where hair styles (and even just hair, e.g. ‘frizzy’ or ‘afro’) more common with African-American people than white people were (are?) specifically banned as part of dress codes.

  • VJBinCT

    O Christian businessman, I can see that you are a far better Christian than me. I am unworthy to enter your store.

  • Ross Thompson

    As Tim Vine said: “…that’s when I thought it would be funny if we hopped.”

  • Ross Thompson

    British schools don’t have lockers

    Mine did…

  • Jamoche

    “Faith, hop, and charity, and the greatest of these is hop”.

  • Panda Rosa

    Especially when making beer.

  • elephantasmagoric

    As a teacher in a UK school, I can safely say that I have never come across a school without a uniform. This is the first I’ve heard of the UK school dress code being under threat in any way.
    I’ve also never been in a school that didn’t have lockers or rules against hair being dyed an unnatural colour or ‘extreme haircuts’.
    But perhaps things are different in my part of the UK.

  • Jamoche

    Are. Google “american school dress code hair rules” and I get several recent cases: “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” tried to ban “afro-puffs and small twisted braids,” (they did back down, but with the “justification” that they really meant they didn’t want *boys* to wear their hair that way.)

    In other words, anything that doesn’t require chemical intervention on African-American hair.

  • AtalantaBethulia

    And those torrid collar bones and shoulders.

    “Necklines on blouses shall not be greater than three finger breadths beneath the collar bone. Sundresses are strictly forbidden. Students are not permitted to wear sleeveless blouses. All buttons on blouses shall be buttoned save for the top button. If a blouse does not have a top button, all buttons shall be buttoned. If a blouse has ties, ties shall always be tied.”

    Free scarlet letters for breaches in dress code.


  • drkrick

    I thought the difference between God and a surgeon was that God didn’t think he was a surgeon?

  • drkrick

    I was pretty much entirely spared a dress code during my (American) high school years because the school district had lost a rather expensive lawsuit about a male student’s hair length the year before I arrived.

  • The Irish Atheist

    Strangely enough, that’s the only picture of the artist’s’ that I somewhat liked. My first thought was that it reflected the tragedy that young men – often good men – are always the ones fighting and dying for old men and their wars. I don’t think anyone would argue that every Confederate soldier was evil, or racist, or actually knew why they were fighting. All many of them knew was that the North was marching into their homes. It’s not like CNN was playing 24/7 in the antebellum South. I think it was actually a decent anti-war message. At least that’s what I got from it.

  • Ross

    I’ve always said, I’d rather have a surgeon who thinks he’s god than have someone cutting me open who’s cool with the fact that he isn’t.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t think anyone would argue that every Confederate soldier was evil, or racist, or actually knew why they were fighting.

    That’s what neo-Confederates refuse to understand. The emotional core of their worldview is unjustified defensiveness, refuting an argument that no one is making. They’re not being blamed for slavery, they’re being blamed for rationalizing or minimizing it.

  • Veylon

    Remember the audience: in the corporate world, lepers, whores, widows, orphans, and other needy simply do not exist. It’s a painting for those whose lives are consumed entirely by papers, phone calls, e-mails, and meetings.

  • Lori

    I think that’s what you got from it because you’re a decent person, plus you don’t have a dog in this particular fight. I bet money I can’t afford to lose that the message you took away wasn’t the intended message or the one received by Greene’s primary audience. The fact that the soldier offering aid is a Confederate and the soldier receiving it is Union wasn’t decided by a coin flip.

  • The Irish Atheist

    I would agree with your last sentence. I would disagree that it was meant to portray the entire Confederacy in a positive light. Obviously neither of us are privy to Greene’ private thoughts, but the only thing I took away from the painting was the actions of two men, not the uniforms they were wearing. If the painting had involved a member of the Black and Tans and not a Confederate soldier, I think the message (to me) would have been the same.

    Incidentally, I do have a dog in this particular fight. The fight against fundamentalist Christianity is my fight, the fight against historical revisionism is my fight, and most importantly America is the nation of my adoption and I care about it very much.

  • Lori

    You’re right that I don’t know Greene’s mind. I do know quite a few of the sort of people who like this kind of art and I think that for a very large number of them the painting is a matter of portraying the Confederacy in a positive light. The Neo-Confederate mindset doesn’t tend toward nuance or thoughts of how terribly sad war is. The glory of the Lost Cause and the injustice of it’s loss are still very much present things for a lot of people. When I lived in the South I honest to FSM had people talk to me about things that happened to long-dead family members in the 1860s the way most folks talk about things that happened in, not exactly the recent past, but within their own lifetime. My guess is that most of the folks who have bought copies of that painting are more like that than they are like you.

  • The Irish Atheist

    I am fully prepared to admit the strong possibility that you are right on all points. I’ll leave my initial point as it is: I took away something from the painting that is different from many other people, and for that I think the piece as it is has some merit. Senior Partner Jesus….not so much.

    And while I have never lived in the Southern United States, I can sympathise with living with people who are stuck so far in the past that it affects the present. I grew up during the Troubles, after all. Different song, same dance.

  • Lori

    Yes, indeed. It’s a sad, descructive thing, whatever form it takes.

  • frazer

    All those school rules remind me of a line in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, in the totalitarian ant colony: “Everything not compulsory is forbidden.”

  • a. nonymous

    What I think is shocking is $1500 for Kitsch like this. Perhaps Jesus is thinking “There’s one born every minute…”

  • Semperfiona

    If the blouse doesn’t have a top button, how can it have any buttons at all?

  • Ian

    You must have had an odd schooling. Or it might be a peculiarly scottish thing. Because this bears no relationship to mine or my sisters school experience. Nor my son’s, nor the few dozen schools that my wife has taught in over her career, in various bits of England and Wales. All of which have school uniforms, and regulations on hairstyles. And more than a few had lockers.

  • Cathy W

    One list of “modesty rules” I’ve seen said that explicitly – men must keep their hair short and women must wear skirts so that you can tell what gender the butt you’re looking at is. If you’re a long-haired man or a woman wearing pants, you might inadvertently cause someone to commit the sin of homosexuality.

  • AtalantaBethulia

    Pardon my lack of clarity. Not every button up shirt has a collar button. Eg: a mandarin collar.

  • arcseconds

    It could have an infinite number of buttons.

  • Alex Harman

    “My dear, dear child, those were the times when I got tired of your whining and booted your ass down the beach.”

  • Evan

    I wonder, do the dress codes differentiate between skirts and kilts?

  • Donalbain

    Not true. Schools do dictate acceptable hair colour. It is part of the uniform list at pretty much all the schools I have ever taught at that hair must be a natural colour, and not include any extreme hair cuts (also usually including a minimum length for boys hair)

    Here is an example picked at random from the webs:

  • Donalbain

    So do most of the schools I have worked at.

  • Donalbain

    It is not a Scottish thing either. Scottish schools also have school uniforms. Another example from the webs:

  • Matri

    “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

  • EdinburghEye

    Seriously? Mine didn’t, nor did I know of anyone who did, and I’ve read news reports since I left of people complaining that school pupils have to lug everything between classes (and headteachers reacting with annoyance about security problems of allowing lockers). Good if that’s changed, but I hadn’t realised it.

  • EdinburghEye

    Of course Scottish schools have school uniforms. But since a kid can’t be suspended from school for not wearing a uniform, they’re legally voluntary.

  • EdinburghEye

    They’d try, but legally they can’t suspend a kid from school for having their hair dyed or growing their hair long (or cutting it short). (At least, they sure can’t in Scotland.)

  • EdinburghEye

    I went to a perfectly normal Scottish secondary school where the school attempted to impose a uniform (and some of the kids did wear uniform) and kids who showed up in non-conformist hairstyles got, got glared at severely.

  • flat

    personally I am much more motivated by demotivational posters than than by motivational posters.

  • flat

    look I know it is the internet, but please don’t try to give certain people ideas about xander/linoleum slashfiction.

  • George J.

    There was once a time when the Honor Code of Oral Roberts University said that no “illegal gambling” was allowed. During my undergraduate years there, parimutuel wagering was legalized in the state of Oklahoma. My friends and I knew the text well and naturally would go and gamble a small portion of our pizza money. Years later I noticed the Honor Code no longer has the word “illegal” qualifying the now apparent sufficient licentiousness of “gambling.”

  • Carstonio

    WTF? So propositioning someone of the same sex by mistake is just a sinful as deliberately seeking out a same-sex partner? Again, that sounds like rationalization for homosexual panic.

  • Michael I

    Although the phrase “Actually, it explains a LOT” does come to mind…

  • Semperfiona

    Was assuming the lack of clarity was in the rules, actually. I’ve seen some pretty badly written rules.

  • Jenny Islander

    Not necessarily. IIRC the dress code at our school was “nothing that sticks out sideways past your shoulders, and informally, if you show up at school in an awesome fancy hairdo that you can’t possibly cover with a hat and it’s frostbite weather, somebody will Talk To You.” ‘Fros were OK, just not huge ‘fros, and spikes were OK, just not in the winter. I think there was also a rule that if you chose a particular hairstyle, you must bring along a way to keep your hair safely out of your chemistry experiment. ISTR a kid with dreds and a shower cap in his pocket.

  • Ben English

    The law agency is probably called Wolflamb and Hart.

  • Daniel

    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. To me the painting smacks of triumphalism, and the pervasive myth that the Confederacy was chivalrous and gentlemanly, but the artist still seems to be glorying in the defeat of the enemy- there are no injured or even dirty Confederates in what appears to be the aftermath of a skirmish. I also have my own baggage about this sort of image as I am half Serb, and every Serb’s household I have ever visited has some version of this painting, which is specifically to illustrate the magnanimity and glory of a defeated army and has since been retooled to justify racism.

  • Daniel

    No. By and large sweatshop workers come from non-Christian countries, so however they’re threading needles is none of JC’s concern.