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.

  • Guest
  • Daniel

    Rule 34 says only if I actually google on it.
    Surely that’s Schrodinger’s Rule 34? Wait…does rule 34 apply to thought experiments too?

  • Daniel

    We had lockers. It probably would have been better had there been rules what we could and could not have kept in them, because god knows at the end of each term we had to bring people in from Chester Zoo to capture whatever had evolved on my PE kit during the school year. Mostly they were alright, but occasionally they flew. Our school crest was a unicorn, and it was rumoured one had been spotted behind the lockers in the art building. Also, one of my friends was suspended for dying her hair pink, because it was not a school colour. Our colours were black, purple and silver, and when she came in with hair dyed purple the headmistress apparently tried to suspend her again. I don’t believe the word “touche” was in the headmistress’s vocabulary.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    No, there is no legislation that deals specifically with school uniform or other aspects of pupil appearance.

  • SororAyin

    You beat me to it.

  • Cactus_Wren

    But schools do not get to dictate how students wear their hair: that’s
    part of their body, and so is between them and their parents.

    I’ve read (someone please correct me if this is in accurate) that in high schools in Japan, students of Ainu heritage — meaning their hair is naturally brown — are required to bring some kind of certificate demonstrating that this is in fact their natural hair color.

  • flat

    personally I think this painting explains Jesus personal opinion about Nathan Greene’s art and his ideas behind creating it

  • Cathy W

    Not even propositioning – just thinking “hey, cute butt.” The rationale was something like:

    - If you look at someone with lust, it’s the same as actually having sex with them.

    - If the sex of the person whose butt you’re looking at can’t be determined at a glance, you might have a lustful thought about the butt of someone the same sex as you.

    - If you had a lustful thought about that person’s butt, it’s the same as if you’d had sex with them, therefore, inadvertently committing homosexuality.

    - Therefore, you must make sure your sex can be determined at a glance from behind, so that nobody of the same sex as you has a lustful thought about your butt, which would mean you were responsible for their homosexual activity. (Unstated corollary: if you have a lustful thought about the butt of the long-haired hippie freak, it’s his fault, not yours, so you’re good there, and he should get a haircut.)

    - Therefore, short hair and pants for men, long hair and skirts for women.

    Arguably, they could have gone with long hair and skirts for men and short hair and pants for women with the same effect…

  • We Must Dissent

    When I taught in Japan (not so long ago), it was common for schools to forbid dyed hair in their school uniform codes. (The junior high I worked at hat rules about the amount of decoration allowed on girls’ socks.) Combine the prohibition against dyed hair with the cultural assumption of ethnic uniformity and that all Japanese have black hair (they do not) and you get whackiness like parents having to submit written statements that their child’s hair really is brown.

  • We Must Dissent

    It’s not just people of Ainu or foreign descent. Despite the myths of national homogeneity, lots of ethnic Japanese have hair that is not black and straight.

  • Tapetum

    We love those! My husband gets a custom calendar every year for Christmas. Though there was this frightening moment when one of upper management wandered into his office and saw his demotivator of the month (All we want here is that you give us your heart) with the picture of the Aztec pyramid – and thought it was a lovely sentiment, not recognizing it as sarcastic.

  • chgo_liz

    No, no….having lustful thoughts about someone of the same sex is just as sinful as having same-sex relations. So make sure you’re objectifying the girls in your school, the way you’re supposed to, and not accidentally lusting after a guy.

  • Carstonio

    If George Carlin’s Class Clown album is accurate, you could be describing Catholicism instead of fundamentalism. “Wanna was a sin all by itself – thou shalt not Wanna!”

  • Carstonio

    That sounds more like Catholicism and not fundamentalism, if George Carlin’s Class Clown album is correct.

  • Jenny Islander

    This appears to still be true today, BTW; some local kids sport mile-high mohawks, but only in the summer, and some have Afros, but not huge poofy ‘dos, and the range of colors is astounding.

  • Cathy W

    In general, yes, I think Catholicism has more cases where “wanna” is a sin – but in this case, the Fundies are all over lustful thoughts, because it’s directly from a Bible verse. “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So a lustful thought is EXACTLY as sinful as actually doing the deed.

  • smrnda

    I suspect part of this is willing ignorance, the celebration of the man full of ‘get off my lawn’ rage who has no interest in the bigger picture. Plenty of Confederate soldiers likely had the faintest notion of what the war was about, but their contemporary defenders do.

  • arcseconds

    (so long as every button is smaller than the preceding button, it could even have infinite number of buttons in a finite space!)

  • smrnda

    I much prefer Caravaggio’s paintings, where the people in the paintings were prostitutes and other assorted ‘low lifes’ from around Rome. Though not a Christian, I like this anti-establishment take there.

  • smrnda

    Given the prevalence of the school-girl outfit fetish, you think they’d prefer anything else. Maybe a grey industrial jumpsuit?

  • smrnda

    A question for any Scots, what is the difference, in terms of make and style, between a skirt and a kilt? Are they just made the same as any pleated skirts?

  • Daniel

    Infinite buttons are a standard feature on Xeno’s paradoxford shirts. You can recognise them easilly- they have a little tortoise and an arrow on the pocket.

  • Daniel

    What is the Jesus fish supposed to be for? I’ve never really understood their purpose- has anyone ever asked a driver with a Jesus fish to tell them about their faith? Has it ever helped evangelism? Ever?

  • smrnda

    I typically decide that a business that has such a fish is probably NOT best place to have the next meeting of the GLBTQ Pride Fest Steering Committee.

  • Daniel

    The Difficult Case- from an early religious version of House MD, called “Many-Mansions MD”:

    “I bet it’s leprosy”
    “It’s not leprosy, Jesus”
    “I bet it’s demons then…”
    “It’s not demons.”
    “No. It’s a rare form of African sleeping sickness caused by a species of tsetse fly that…”
    “Not. Demons. I don’t know how to cure him. He has only hours to live.”
    “Get me some pigs.”
    “IT’S. NOT. DEMONS.”
    “…leprosy then?”

  • Daniel

    Or congratulating them for managing to find 5000 letters all addressed to Jesus H Christ and winning that case for him.

  • AnonymousSam

    Exact same reason as why people have bumper stickers announcing their favorite team or who they voted for in the primaries: Tribalism. 100% tribalism.

  • arcseconds

    Does it come with a pamphlet helping people to train to do up each button in half the time they do the previous button?

  • EdinburghEye

    Kilts generally have a lot more material than pleated skirts do (diagrams here). Because of the pleats and the double-layers of material, kilts are very warm and heavy.

  • arcseconds

    Actually, I’m also intrigued by the no button case. A no-button blouse has no top button, therefore all of them ought to be buttoned.

    But is “All the buttons of my blouse are buttoned” true or false if one is wearing a blouse with no buttons?

    The question is whether the writers of these regulations see affirmative universal statements as having existential import or not. That is to say, does ‘All Ps are Qs’ imply the existence of Ps?

    In Aristotelian logic such statements are assumed to have existential import. But in modern logic, they are usually not. “All Ps are Qs” is normally taken to be equivalent to “There is no thing x such that x is P and x is not Q” which is true if there are no Ps at all.

    What kind of logic is employed by writers of school uniform regulations, I wonder?

    It seems a trifle cruel to automatically make any wearer of a blouse without buttons, no matter how far up the neck it might be done up, automatically in violation of the strictures, so I’m assuming they’re all up with the play with the modern predicate calculus.

    This is, I believe, further supported by the fact that they are careful enough to cover the case of blouses with infinite buttons…

  • EllieMurasaki

    What kind of logic is employed by writers of school uniform regulations, I wonder?

    Somewhere on Tumblr there’s a photo of a guy wearing at school a T-shirt says words to the effect of ‘bad girls suck, good girls swallow’. Caption to the effect of, nobody busted him on it. Somewhere else on Tumblr there’s a photo of a few guys wearing clothes that would get girls wearing the same outfits busted for dress code violations. Caption to the effect of, nobody busted them either, and when they inquired about this, they were explicitly told that those rules were only for girls.

    Logic is not in play here.

  • FearlessSon

    Although I suppose “Storytime” comes close, and after all we know that Jesus always enjoyed a good story.

    “He likes to listen to people talk. Says it sounds like music to Him. Christ loved to sit around the fire and listen to me and the other guys. Whenever we were going on about unimportant shit, He always had a smile on His face.”

    - Rufus, the Thirteenth Apostle, Dogma

  • smrnda

    Thanks! This might also explain why (as people in the States who have sought them out tell me) that kilts are rather expensive – costly material and hand made!

    Would imagine that with the weather, the warmth is kind of a necessity.

  • P J Evans

    I don’t know where the Muslims in my work groups went for their prayers. One of them did have a picture of the Kaaba in his cube, though. (Nice guys. I made one’s day last year by pointing at the picture of the skyscraper lit up in green for Eid.)

  • smrnda

    I suspect the people who write these rules are obsessed with power, control, order, and have a sneaking suspicion that anything short of turning a school into a well-regulated prison will lead to chaos. I’d also imagine that it’s an ego trip for people who can impose ridiculous rules on people younger and smaller than them – if they tried a stunt like that with adults, you might get insurrection.

  • P J Evans

    Not recognizing that it was Aztec, or what they did with hearts (or how they actually got them) – that’s even more frightening, when they’re thinking it’s a lovely sentiment.

  • P J Evans

    My memories of high-school dress code (about 50 miles east of San Francisco, in the mid-60s) are: boys had to wear slacks and a dress or sport shirt; skirts on girls had to reach either the floor in front or the back of the knee when kneeling, no more and no less (and no slacks or jeans); no bead necklaces; no sandals; denim pants and cowboy boots were permitted for boys one day a year (but no spurs inside the buildings). I’m sure there were other rules, but I don’t remember them.

  • FearlessSon

    Depending on where you go, kilts are a valid dress (and casual) cloths option for men in America. Some places might give you funny looks, others will get you approving looks.

    I remember meeting a woman who would great any man in a kilt with a hug and the phrase “Thank you for doing your part to make the world a sexier place.”

  • FearlessSon

    I think that part of the reason the school-girl outfit fetish exists is because of rules like this. The dress code restrictions come to be symbolic of attempts to restrict sexuality, and sexually engaging in the context of those rules is seen by some as a kind of liberating transgression. It breaks the rules, and in doing so robs them of their power to control.

    Poor sad fundies, playing right into the devil they seek to dodge…

  • smrnda

    My take on it was more mundane – for a decent portion of guys, that was what girls were wearing when they first started feeling sexually attracted to them.

    Others have said things more or less like what you said, and I defer to your judgment as I’m not such good judge of such things, being asexual myself.

  • ShifterCat

    That reminds me, Christian kitsch du jour: the My Friend Jesus toy! He’s got Middle-Eastern skin, but blue eyes!

    (Warning: music autoplays. Music controls are top right.)

  • NobleExperiments

    That’s my favorite. A previous boss at a start-up said he was going to get some motivational posters, and I said fine, but I’d order the one for my office. And then I showed him that one as one of the possibilities. He got nice landscapes instead.

  • Daniel

    Kitsch and terrifying:

    The Friendship Code of honour pledge is a special oat [sic] that everyone
    must complete to access the Friendship club once you have completed the friendship code of honour pledge then you will enjoy all the great fun
    and games with the friendship pals and be part of the Friendship Club!

    So buy a doll, swear a binding oath to get special privileges?

  • Amaryllis


    Also, though, it occurs to me that all those doctors and lawyers are men. There’s a female nurse, and of course the female teacher. So maybe the implication is that Jesus is able to relax and listen among the children, instead of whispering prompts into the teacher’s ear, is that teaching is so easy anyone can do it, it doesn’t require expert advice.


  • Cathy W

    Was this a public school or a religious school? No beads and no sandals sounds very much like “no hippies”, but was people wearing spurs on cowboy boot day an issue?

  • Cathy W

    Conversely, girls seem to get more leeway on hats, bandanas, and other headcoverings than boys do, especially African-American boys.

  • Lori

    The doctor in “The Physician’s Prayer” is a woman, but other than that yeah, all men.

  • Launcifer

    I was listening to my local radio station on Saturday afternoon, largely because that’s the only place I can get reliable coverage of my local football team’s matches. One of the commentators accused one of our players of attempting to thread a pass “through the eye of an eagle”.

    I’ve been pondering that image ever since.

  • Lori

    I think that your theory and FearlessSon’s are mutually reinforcing, not contradictory.

  • Raymond

    “Maybe it’s a painful hemorrhage.”
    “It’s not a hemorrhage.”
    “Let him touch the hem of my garment.”
    “It’s NOT a hemorrhage.”
    “Leprosy then?”