“Others may, we cannot” is a bald-faced lie, or,
Why I am more comfortable hanging out with non-religious people when water is involved.
Anyone who spent time in organizations built on legalism, such as that of Bill Gothard (me) or Jonathan Lindvall (my wife), or innumerable others, has undoubtedly been given this explanation for the rules.
Since most of the rules are not directly and clearly found in scripture, but are inferred through proof texting and outright fabrication in some instances, there has to be an explanation as to why the rules should apply. After all, don’t plenty of other Christians have other, conflicting beliefs about these issues?
This gets particularly sticky on a few issues - at least in my experience.
Let me share one. Gothard teaches that his followers need to follow the Old Testament dietary rules. This, despite the little dream incident with Saint Peter and the non-Kosher food. Why? Well, there are a bunch of fun complicated rationalizations, including some alternative medicine pseudoscience. (In reality, although Gothard doesn’t actually say so, he is advocating Old Testament Theonomy, which he stole - without attribution - from R. J. Rushdoony.)
But how do we explain to our non-Gothard friends why we can’t eat their food?
“Others may, we cannot.” “We are called to a higher standard.” And so on.
For dietary issues, this, I guess, sort of works. It’s much like a food allergy. People may well accommodate us and our preferences, and won’t necessarily feel that we are looking down on them for eating what we will not.
I personally found this very awkward during my family’s Gothard phase. Looking back, I wish I had just eaten the ham and been done with it, rather than give this lame explanation. But it’s hard as a teenager living at home to openly rebel.
I’ve touched on the issue of music before in my discussion of the racist origins of Christian Patriarchy. Succinctly put, Gothard (and others) teach that any music with African origins or influence is demonic. That means jazz, ragtime, blues, rock and roll, and all their descendents. In practice, anything that post-dates the 19th Century is suspect and likely evil.
Unlike the issue of dietary rules, this one is a doozy in practice.
This may seem hard to believe, but Gothard actually encourages - nay, insists - that if you go to a restaurant or store, and they are playing “ungodly” music, one should go to management and ask that they turn it off.
I kid you not.
Likewise, one should tell one’s boss to change the music. (I never claimed that Gothard or these other guys actually understood how the real world works.)
Because mere passive listening will contaminate you. (And you might get a demon…)
As you can see, in this instance, “Others may, we cannot” is a total, absolute lie. “Others may,” but only as long as they do it in private, and never around the “godly elect.” The rule must be enforced on others.
How this relates to Modesty Culture
Plenty of Modesty Culture advocates have tried to soft peddle their beliefs by claiming that they don’t believe everyone necessarily needs to wear clothing that meets their approval. They claim that they just “feel called by God” to wear what they wear.
I’m calling bullshit on this.
No, they don’t believe that others can legitimately differ. Here’s the proof:
Back in part 8 of this series, I described the incident at a local public charter school. The one wherein girls were forbidden to wear swimsuits to a water-related event. At a public school.
Do you really think that the parents who insisted on that rule really believed that it was okay for little girls to wear swimsuits? Hell no! If they did, there would be no need to insist that other people’s children follow that dress code.
Believe me, you will see this every time you attend a water related event with Modesty Culture partisans.
You will be told what you may wear and what your kids may wear around their kids.
Because heaven forbid they be “contaminated” by your sin.
They do not in fact believe that different people may have different beliefs. No, they know damn well what God’s will is for everyone else. Down to the very details of the cut of the suit. Not only will they tell you so, but they will take steps to ensure that you do follow their rules.
What they REALLY mean
It took a bit of thinking before I settled on what I believe to be the real issue. As with so many things, it helps to observe what people do, rather than focus on what they say, because behavior reveals thoughts.
For the most part, modesty culture proponents are inconsistent in how they approach the issue. While there are a few like the Duggars (see endnote) who strive for intellectual consistency, most people don’t actually act consistent with their stated belief.
I already noted that modesty culture proponents will attempt to control others when they can. However, with the very few exceptions noted above, they won’t absolutely limit contact with people who don’t follow their rules.
Let me give an obvious example.
Very, very few people in California do not ever go to the beach. Most of us try to get out there regularly. It’s one of the joys of living in California.
Most people I know who get their panties in a knot about swimsuits nevertheless go to the beach as well. This is a bit puzzling if one listens to their rhetoric.
If it is really acceptable for others to differ in clothing, then why do they feel the need to control?
On the other hand, if it is really necessary to control others to protect the little darlings from slutty other people, then why do they go to the beach, where most people don’t adhere to their dress code?
My epiphany came when I realized the dilemma that one faces when raising kids to be legalists.
If you tell your children that women who don’t follow your clothing rules are wicked, ungodly sluts, then you have some potential pitfalls to avoid. It’s easy for your kids to look at perfect strangers at the beach and be taught to disdain and avoid them as evil. They are the wicked “other.”
It’s much harder to do that when they see a friend or relative break the rule.
If you teach your kids that those who wear different clothing are evil, then they might say something embarrassing when they see cousin Zoe or aunt Edna wearing a tank top. Nothing like a kid telling a relative, “God doesn’t like it when you wear that.” A bit embarrassing, maybe. And not really good for relationships either.
But there is a worse potential outcome (for the legalist):
What if the kid (being intelligent and all) sees someone they love - who may very well be a Christian too - breaking mommy and daddy’s rules?
The child might decide that following that legalistic rule is NOT necessary to be a good person or even a good Christian.
And that - make no mistake - would be unthinkable.
That’s why modesty culture proponents have to control friends and family - and school situations. Because the whole house of cards is in danger of falling if a child realizes that good people and good Christians differ on clothing. The thought might occur to them that maybe God doesn’t really expect one to dress in a deliberately counter-cultural manner.
Why I am more comfortable around non-religious people when water is involved
My family takes part in a number of activities outside of the Christian bubble. For one, my older daughters do gymnastics at a local secular studio. (I mention this because our local home school forum periodically has people looking for exclusively “Christian” places to send their kids. A “Christian” 4H club, a “Christian” this or that. Can’t let those precious angels be around non-religious kids…) And, the kids wear standard gymnastics clothing. Nobody bats an eyelash about it.
For another, we are involved in the local track club. We run for fun in the hot, hot sun, as Dr. Seuss put it. Also a secular group, containing a wide variety of people with a wide variety of beliefs.
Also, they wear a wide variety of clothing styles - none of which are remotely Gothard (or Duggar) approved. In fact, much of what people run in, particularly in 100+ degree weather, is tight and short.
And you know what? Somehow, the vast majority of the men involved aren’t standing there perving on the women. (Or vice versa, for that matter.) It’s amazing. People are out there to run, not to obsess about what others are wearing.
There was one final straw on this, though, that sealed the deal for me.
When I am around devout Christians with my kids at an activity involving water - and thus swimsuits - I will nearly always get a comment about what my daughters are wearing. (Not my sons. Nobody really cares when boys wear culturally normal clothing.)
Sometimes it will be a compliment on how nice it is that my daughters wear modest suits. (This means that their navels don’t show, I think…or maybe something else...there are clearly as many opinions as people...) Other times, it will be something politely snide about how it’s nice when girls cover up. It all depends on where that particular person draws the line.
But believe me, all of them are looking my daughters’ bodies over and deciding what they think of me and my wife based on our clothing choices for them.
I find this profoundly uncomfortable.
My daughter’s bodies (and my wife’s for that matter) are not objects to be judged by their attire. They are just their bodies, and they have fun playing in water. That isn’t changed one bit by whether their navels show or by the cut of the leg holes.
A breath of fresh air
Not too long ago, my kids made some friends on a camping trip, at a place containing a river. Naturally, we went swimming.
For the first time in, well, years, I didn’t hear ONE comment about my girls’ suits.
And they played with boys too. No concern was voiced about how hard it is to take them swimming because of the girls they might see. Nobody worried about their sons around girls. It just wasn’t an issue.
Likewise, at a later event involving several not-particularly-religious friends at the beach, there was NO freakout about suits. The kids just played in the water and sand and had a good time, and no parent EVER mentioned anything.
What a breath of fresh air.
It really struck me afterward that this was how it used to be when I was a small child. Kids from the neighborhood could come over to our pool, wearing whatever they got off the rack, and it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t - even after puberty - spend much time analyzing their suits (although obviously I found plenty of girls to be attractive at that point). We just swam together and had fun. It wasn’t about sex. Not even after puberty. We could play in the water as friends and not spend any time scrutinizing each others’ attire.
My girls at the beach. Back in the day, this happened in mixed groups and nobody got their panties in a wad.
And this is why, if water is involved, I would rather be (with a very few exceptions) around non-religious friends. Because they haven’t sexualized everything. Because my daughters can just be, without being held up for judgment and either approved or not, depending on the particular personal clothing preferences of the person judging them.
This is also why I am extremely uncomfortable with my daughters being around Modesty Culture proponents.
Because I have no confidence that they are teaching their sons to respect women. (See part 4 on “Defrauding” and Rape Culture.) Because I see that they are focused on sex and on appearances, and are not seeing my daughters as people rather than bodies. Because I know - from my wife’s experience - that my daughters will eventually be looked upon as moral threats to the virtue of their sons. Because my daughters will be blamed for their sons’ sexual failings.
Because that is what Modesty Culture does.
In my next installment, I will be sharing my wife’s personal experience of being singled out for slut shaming. I believe it sheds light on the natural, inevitable result of reducing women to bodies and to sexual threats to men.
Modesty Culture Part 11: “Others may, we cannot” is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story
Note on the Duggars:
I mentioned above that the Duggars try to be intellectually consistent. That is why they don’t let their kids go swimming around ordinary, “sinful” people. They don’t go to the beach or the public pool.
They, and plenty of others with the modesty obsession also instruct the young men to “avert their eyes” any time they see a woman or girl dressed the “wrong” way. They might lust! “Oh no, Mr. Bill!”
Thus, an ordinary trip to buy groceries becomes the navigation of a minefield.
I do not see any way that this is healthy, or leads to healthy views of women or sexuality in these poor young men.
I’ve linked to Darcy’s blog a few times in this series, and yet again, she has an outstanding contribution.
Note on the few “sins” that we treat this way:
There really are two areas that we tend to rush to “protect” our children from, and I think they are somewhat related.
The first is all things sexual - modesty culture just being one of the manifestations of the greater issue. This is why I remember plenty of calls to not let your children be in the presence of couples who cohabit without marriage. Or - god forbid! - around homosexuals. There is a fear of contamination that goes along with it.
The other area is alcohol. For many parents, it is a deal breaker for alcohol to be consumed in their presence. (As with the beach, this doesn’t necessarily apply to public restaurants, but does apply to friends and family.)
We don’t do this with other sins. You certainly wouldn’t see it with gluttony. You wouldn’t see it with anger in most cases. Even child cruelty is more easily tolerated.
Why is this? I think it is, once again, about the problem in supporting the rule.
As a child, I saw plenty of terrible parenting going on in public. It didn’t make me want to be a bad parent. It’s really easy to explain to a kid why parents shouldn’t call their children “little shits” in public. The concept is pretty easy to grasp, and the reasons go far beyond “because I said so.”
Likewise for many things that are clearly immoral. Kids aren’t stupid. They can see injustice - often better than adults can, if we are honest. Likewise, kids seem to recognize the value of that timeless list of the spiritual virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. It’s harder to actually demonstrate these, but they aren’t hard to desire.
With alcohol and sex, there is much more of a problem, because many of the rules about these aren’t really supported intellectually or experientially.
Teetotalling is very much a modern American affectation, rather than a universal Christian principle. If one wants to put a really fine point on it, the founder of our religion kicked his ministry off by making some seriously good wine, and prior to the apotheosis - the central event - in the history of mankind to Christians - he chose wine as one of two symbols of our definitive sacrament.
So, teetotalling cannot stand up to even a tiny bit of intellectual scrutiny, and thus must be defended by complete isolation, the control of others (hello, Prohibition!), and the demonization of those who disagree. Thus, “others may, we cannot” is once again utter bullshit.
Likewise on Modesty Culture. The rules regarding the specifics of attire cannot withstand an intellectual probing (as I think I have demonstrated in the prior installments of this series), and thus must be hedged around with isolation, control, and demonization of those who disagree.
I also believe that this problem extends to much more of how we approach sexuality in general as well, but that is a bit beyond the scope of this series.
What I will say about it, though, applies to all of these areas. First, much of what we teach isn’t really even a biblical mandate, but is just rules made by men.
Second, these rules are predominantly cultural. They are about the preference for a certain culture over another.
Third, I think that down deep, we know that the rules are vulnerable to a challenge. We don’t believe that our reasons and our claims are convincing. Otherwise, why would we worry so much about our children hearing or seeing competing ideas?
I do think this is an important point. If we can’t do better than “Because I say so,” or “God Says So,” we have a problem. Particularly in light of all the things God supposedly said about which we have changed our collective minds. Things like slavery, or the status of women as property, or the whole “kill the witches” thing.
Our kids aren’t stupid. If we want to convince them to adopt our rules once they become adults, we had better make darn sure that we have reasons that will stand up to a bit of scrutiny.
(And we might want to make sure that they aren’t rooted in racism or misogyny either. Just a thought.)
One More Link:
This is a good one by Pastor David Orrison on how personal preferences are twisted into “convictions,” then rules imposed on everyone else.
From a comment on a previous installment:
I’m not the only one who feels this way about the perils of hanging out with fundamentalist Christians. After posting this, many friends and relatives have chimed in with the same experiences.
I did want to share a poignant comment on Part 4 of this series. It illustrates both the nonsense of Modesty Culture and the relief of being around non-obsessed people.
Once, when my child was about four, he got covered in burdocks during a walk in the woods. Very sensibly, he stripped to his underwear before going into the house. The equally little children we were with, whose parents were seriously into Doug Wilson and Co. at the time, were scandalized: "Mama, Mama, R took his clothes off."
Because God only knows what would happen if people saw four year olds in whitey-tighties.
I was amazed and enchanted, when I recently spent time with my now twenty-something child and his friends in a far-away city, at how small and balanced a part sexuality seems to play in their lives. They're all perfectly normal, secular or mainstream Christians, and they look at each other, talk to each other, touch each other as people--human beings first and foremost, not sexualized men and women.
I can’t believe I forgot this!
I fully intended to put one of my all time favorite C. S. Lewis quotes here, but completely forgot. So here it is: