Monday, June 16, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 7: Maybe Christian Women Should Buy Their Clothes at WalMart

Modesty Culture Part 7: Maybe Christian Women Should
Buy Their Clothes at WalMart

Post update: After some comments from Facebook, I realized I needed to make some things clear. 1. This post is hyperbole. 2. No, I do not believe all Christians should just shop at WalMart. I thought that was obvious, but apparently not. 3. I am taking a hyper-literal approach to the real meaning - in context - of the passage in question. I am actually the opposite of a Biblical theonomist, and I deplore interpretations that seek to impose rules based on a hyper-literal interpretation. 4.  I do stand by my assertion that classism is a big problem in our society and in the Church. 5. I am trying to point out that we have misused this passage by ignoring its actual meaning, and instead have used it as a proof-text to enforce cultural clothing preferences. 


Try to remember the last time you heard a “hard hitting” sermon on the problem of classism in American Christianity. Crickets, more likely than not.

But did you know that this was one of greatest concerns of the apostles? In I Corinthians, Saint Paul is appalled that the rich are getting drunk while the poor go hungry. Saint James warns against showing favoritism to the rich. Christ himself warns that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.

But we have made it so that wealth is equivalent to Godliness in far too many things.

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all of my observations on this point. I’ll simply say that if you analyze a lot of what is considered to be “godliness” by the conservative church, you will find that it is much easier to attain if you have money. And nearly impossible if you do not.

Let’s look at James 2 (all quotations are from the NASB unless otherwise stated:

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.  For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?  But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?  Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

Saint James doesn’t pull any punches. By showing favoritism to the wealthy and the higher classes, we become judges with evil motives.

Let’s apply this to the Modesty Culture context.

Attaining the definition of “Modesty” takes money.

You can’t buy “modest” clothing off the rack at WalMart.

In fact, if you look at much of what is deplored as “immodest,” you will find that it is the sort of thing the “hoi polloi” wear.

The sort of stuff you find on the rack at WalMart.

The sort of stuff that people of limited means wear. I do not think it would be stretching at all to say that a lot of what is deplored as “immodest” is really just “low class.”

The big elephant in the room of conservative Christianity is an out-of-control classism.

You can see it in our celebrity culture. We have our own celebrity pastors, with their own brands, big houses, and huge budgets. Speakers that command high fees and fill stadiums. We practically scream like schoolgirls seeing the Beatles whenever a celebrity converts, or becomes known to be a Christian. As if their souls were worth far more than that of a poor brown skinned person.

You can see it in the way that we talk about people on food stamps and the way they cook and shop, as if they were immoral or stupid, rather than impoverished.

You can see it in how we talk about immigration. Educated immigrants - often from Asian countries are fine, but no more of those impoverished dirty Mexicans. (Class and race are so intertwined in the United States.)

You can see it in the horror of “Obamacare,” because heaven forbid poorer and younger people get the guaranteed and affordable health care that older, wealthier people do.

You can see it in the way that class can get you instant credibility in church, just as it does in the greater culture.

And believe me, you can see it in the swimsuits advertised as “modest.” This goes equally for the ultraconservative ones with the offensive branding of “cover up for Christand the retro “modest” suits. Well, they cost $90 or more. Sure, some of them are cute and kind of “vintage.” (Meaning from a past era, of course.) Hey, you want to wear them, fine. If they fit and look good, why not? If you can afford them. Same thing with catalogues like Land’s End. We’ve bought stuff from there. Usually, it is high quality - but with a price to match. Not everyone has the budget for a $75.00 swimsuit. Also, many of the suits don't work or fit well for slender figures. If you like it and can afford it, go ahead.

But don’t confuse your ability to afford these expensive outfits with “godliness.” It’s your economic privilege, not your virtue, showing. And likewise, don’t confuse your upper middle class sense of style with “godliness.” It’s your sense of snobbery, not your virtue, showing.

Those women who are wearing basic bikinis off the rack at WalMart aren’t more sinful than you.

WalMart Juniors swimsuit. Cost: $10.00
Rey Swimsuits retro suit. Cost: $100.00
Likewise, all those homemade dresses? The ones that look like Amish dresses? (The type my wife was forced to wear during her teens…)

Those too show your privilege.

People who make less money than you don’t have the time to sew their own clothes. They are busy trying to survive. They also don’t have the privilege of using their clothing as a protest against mainstream culture. And so they buy culturally normal clothes at WalMart.

So again, what you are calling godliness and modesty is really just your goddamn wealth and privilege that you are flaunting.

If you took I Timothy 2 literally, you would buy your clothes at WalMart

If you really want to take I Timothy 2 as literally as possible, what would you do?

You would make sure you wear clothes that are affordable by the least privileged in our society. WalMart. 

Or maybe a thrift shop.

Dress your kids on those Dora the Explorer t-shirts that were on the clearance rack.

That would be keeping with the spirit (and the letter) of Saint Paul’s instructions. Wear stuff that doesn’t show off your wealth, but is normal, well ordered, and typical of the less fortunate in your culture.

Don’t make worship - or “godliness” about what you are wearing or your ability to afford it.

In my opinion, those who impose dress codes on others are actually violating the spirit of “Modesty.”

They are making worship and “godliness” about what they are wearing. And what others are wearing. They are sexualizing worship. They are showing off their superior “godliness.”

In the next section, I will talk about the millennia old sexism and misogyny at the root of “Modesty Culture.”

Note on a modern example of showing favoritism:

Lest you think that favoritism is a problem of the past, let me just give an example.

If I walk into a church, wearing my khakis and collared shirt, tell people I am a lawyer when asked what I do (often the first question a man gets asked), and pull out my violin, what happens? I get instant respect and credibility. I have established my credentials as part of the educated professional upper middle class.

No let’s imagine instead that a young man comes in wearing saggy ghetto pants, who is out of work after layoffs at the oilfield. You are dreaming if you think he gets any respect from any church he walks into. Double that if he is African American. (Class and race are bound up together in our nation. One of the worst things a middle class white boy can do is dress or act “Black.”)

I think if Saint James walked into our churches, there would be some ‘splainin’ to do. Just saying.

Let me just mention one more thing: big breasts and big butts are associated in our minds (and to a degree in reality) with African Americans and Hispanics. Flat, cylindrical figures are associated more with northern Europeans and Asians. Hmm. Harder to be "Modest" when one is a person of color, methinks.

One more on classism:

I am trying to remember a time when I heard a sermon on classism. Specifically, a sermon wherein I was called to task for making classist statements about dress, intelligence, behavior, etc. (Because I have committed this sin, as have most people I know.)

There is at least one website dedicated to mocking the “People of WalMart.” You probably already know this, because your friends have posted it. We mock the clothing, the body shapes, the language (very guilty), the culture, and the tastes, of those of lower class. We assume they are all lazy, stupid, and above all, tasteless.

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this attitude, because I find it hard - impossible really - to reconcile with the teachings of Christ. (And a number of the apostles too…)

But I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon condemning this sort of humor-at-others’-expense. Ever.

But you know what I have heard? Thousands (literally) of discussions, teachings, sermons, blog posts, articles, and so on about how bad it is that young girls dress the way they do.

Again, we completely ignore the intended meaning of the passage - classism and materialism - and instead make it about the supposed sexual faults of others. 

Note on WalMart:

Yes, I know one can buy one-piece suits for cheap at WalMart. In the old ladies' section. With all of the control panels, underwires, and other devices in them. They are generally sized for the wider figure. No, they are not comfortable or well fitted to younger or thinner females. 

Yet somehow, we are shocked, shocked, that young women would rather shop in the juniors section rather than wear what their grandmothers are wearing. 

Note on showing off:

In some ways, it is hard to find a better example of this than the Duggars. Most people have heard of their “reality” show on TLC. What fewer know is that they are part of Gothard’s cult - and indeed promote his ideas on the show - and that they also have ties to and promote Doug Phillips (Vision Forum) and the Pearls.

However, even the casual observer can see that they have a pretty good bit of wealth. The enormous house, the multiple businesses, the bus that cost more than my house, the multiple household staff, and so on. There sure seems to be a lot of focus during the show on these things.

Also, there is the way that they constantly use the show to promote their particular viewpoints. I don’t necessarily begrudge them this, but it sure seems to be showing off how spiritual they consider themselves, and how they believe that their way is so much more “godly” than the way normal people do things. A little self-awareness would lead them to recognize that much of what they are able to do is due to their economic privilege, and would be completely unavailable to the average person.

An interesting article:

Unsurprisingly, class plays a huge role in “slut” shaming. It also rarely if ever works to the advantage of those lower on the wealth and class scale.


  1. Like all good satire, this post has a good point, one with which I fully agree. However, perhaps we should take it a few steps further.

    In Biblical times, there was no such thing as swimwear or even underwear. Was there no swimming? That's not a reasonable assumption, to say the least! Were all the Hebrews' tents divided into "men/boys" and "women/girls"? Again, hardly a reasonable assumption. What's reasonable is to realize that folks in Bible times simply didn't have the automatic association of nudity with sexual temptation that has "arisen" (sorry 'bout that pun) in the last couple of centuries--and this hypothesis is borne out in extra-Biblical sources which verify that, indeed, folks did not always wear any of their precious cloth, especially less-than-wealthy folks like slaves and fishermen.

    And that wasn't a problem!

    Jesus Himself, when He took on the role of the lowest-class servant in the Last Supper, laid aside *all* of His garments--not just His "outer clothing" as so many modern versions misstate. Yes, He was naked in front of His disciples! Granted, perhaps only the Twelve were in the room, but any maidservant or close friend such as Mary Magdalene could have come in at any time. He would also, by unvarying tradition, have been completely naked during His baptism and crucifixion (although the latter wasn't strictly His doing).

    There's a lot more I could type about nakedness and the Bible, all pointing to the fact that the "religious" prohibition against nudity, even public nudity, is a recent development in history and forms no part of actual Biblical teaching.

    1. Those are all excellent points. Likewise, cultures differ regarding nudity in specific situations. American Christianity is still grappling with the legacy of our Puritan ancestors and the Victorian discomfort with female sexuality.

      As I hope to expand on in a future post, there is a longer history of viewing women's bodies as moral contaminants, and Christianity probably began to adopt this viewpoint in the centuries after Christ, but it only got worse as time went on.

      It certainly does seem that it is primarily the ultra-religious that spend the most time obsessing about bodies and sex. It has been interesting spending time with non-religious friends in water related activities and realizing that for the most part, they don't really spend time associating it with sex.

    2. Indeed. It's only our obsessions that make nudity appear sexy.

    3. I'm pretty sure the Christian "nudity is evil" craziness came out of the "who is holier" dick measuring contest that the Catholics and Protestants ran with shortly after the Reformation. Protestants claimed nudity was "sinful" and thus their banning of it made them "more holy", and Pope Paul IV reacted to that by having all the nude historical statues and such in Rome censored...

  2. Today, I read all of your posts on modesty culture. I really learned a lot.

    I was also raised fundamentalist, but I left before influences like Reconstruction, Gothard, and home schooling became significant, even though I was aware of them. Thank you so much for these posts!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! Your blog has been a source of much information too, and an encouragement to me.

    2. Thank you too.

  3. In my view, the whole of Christian Patriarchy, submission of women, and extreme modesty flaunt being well-off: "See, I can afford that my wife not work"; "I can afford to have a Quiverfull of children and keep them on rural acreage"; "My daughters don't have to get an education or profession because I have friends whose sons will be able to support them in style"; "My women can wear long, full, pastel-colored bespoke dresses and snow-white veils because they don't have to get dirty working."

    Perhaps these people genuinely believe that others have the same resources they do. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Evangelical Christians have a higher per-capita income than average. Certainly, after moving to the rural Midwest, I have learned that there is a tremendous amount of wealth derived from the land. People can rent, sell off bits as needed, sell the lot and distribute the proceeds to their children, divide it up for family homesteads, keep it for granddaughters who might not get married, etc.

    Probably people will claim that they have been rewarded for generational faithfulness, but in fact it is simply luck that their ancestors were there when Native Americans were driven off desirable land and they (the ancestors) could get it for living on and working it. My husband's preacher great-grandfather and missionary grandfather and his quiverful of children didn't get any kind of financial reward for their generational faithfulness

    I grew up among people who, like my parents, came to the US with very little besides the clothes on their backs. They had lost all financial resources in revolution and all opportunity for education in war and refugee camps. Theologically orthodox, socially conservative, all women except the most elderly worked--for a roof and food. Every girl with a C-average went to college. And the women whose labor fed their families were not silenced in churches. It wasn't until I was at Wheaton (early '70s) that I heard grudging permission given for a visiting missionary wife to read scripture from behind the pulpit of College Church. I thought it odd

    1. Outstanding comment. I agree 100%.

      My ancestors were dirt poor when they came to the US, but benefited from the Homestead act. (That is, we got free land stolen from the Native Americans.) That gift (and free government education) is what got us started on middle class existence and made an education and prosperity possible.

      I would also say, though, that my farming ancestors all worked hard - including the women. Maybe especially the women. My step-great-grandmother ran a farm by herself and raised my grandmother after her husband was killed in an accident.

      It really is a version of the 1950s American Dream that has been transformed in our minds into a vision of "godliness."

    2. Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that the people who were lucky enough to get land didn’t have to work it hard.

      I think, though, that their heirs suffer from historical amnesia. They forget that history is written by and for the descendants of the winners in life’s race and that fiction is written for those with the leisure to read by those with the time to write.

      Much as we would like to imagine otherwise, most of us would not have been genteel Victorian ladies reading poetry and painting watercolors (or their spouses). We would have been among the “ten who toil while one reposes.”

      I think that at least the more grassroots churches of those times reflected that reality and that some, at least, allowed the women who toiled in field or factory to also labor in the Lord’s vineyard. The Quakers (who were NOT middle-class, let alone upper-crust in the beginning) and the Methodists had women traveling in ministry from the first. Brethren allowed a woman to preach in the 1840s. Even the Mennonite/Holiness Missionary Church had women preaching in the 1930s.

      Many of the doctrines and practices considered traditional and orthodox are, in fact, quite recent innovations. The “plain coat” worn by conservative Anabaptist men was _invented_ in the 1890s. The artfully-tied headscarves worn by Slavic Baptist women were not even seen _anywhere_ until the early 1960s (there are photos to prove this). Seventh-Day Adventists hadn’t heard of “headship” until the 1980s, when the Missionary Church finally silenced their women.

      It's strange that people so adamant about not conforming to the world should latch onto a rather materialistic decade in an extraordinarily prosperous country and hold it up as the epitome of godliness. But I guess it all depends on how one defines both conforming and godliness

    3. I didn't take your comment that way at all. If anything, I recognize the privilege that my ancestors had and passed on to me.

      As usual, I love your thoughtful and informed comments.

      I particularly love your note that not all of us would have been the aristocracy - which is what we really imagine when we glorify the past. Nobody wants the Hobbesian "Nasty, brutish, and short" lives lived by the vast majority during, say, the Victorian Era, or the Middle Ages.

    4. Friends who are into Renaissance re-enactment or the Society for Creative Anachronism have commented on this. Everyone wants to be knight, or carry a sword. No one wants to be a peasant or a servant, so their gatherings look nothing like the societies they are supposed to emulate.

  4. This is years later, but I found a link to your writings and found them interesting, since the only interaction I have with church Christians is reading about some of their crazy pronouncements on the Internet. I figured I'd mention that a lot of the sudden push for wealth as a sign of "Godliness" likely came from the influence of the Prosperity Gospel that came into American evangelicalism around the 60's; a horrible concept of holiness, pushed by the rich and the politicians they bought, along with televangelists, to try and get the religious to vote against their own personal interests. Sadly, it worked really well, considering the Religious Right is a strong component of the Republican voting block, despite the Republican agenda being as far away from a Christian agenda as you could likely get...