Sunday, August 17, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others may, we cannot" is a Lie

“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. 

Not one. 

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

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:

“One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons--marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”


  1. Thanks for this excellent article. I can identify. I do believe that modesty culture boomerangs by causing people, especially boys and men, to be MORE obsessed with sexual thoughts.

  2. I can verify from my time in the Church of the Nazarene that the actions of their leaders do not reflect the "others may" part of that statement. They do tend to believe that their way is the only good way. Sad, because otherwise they're good people who understand God's grace, at least regarding salvation.

    1. This is a problem throughout Evangelicalism in particular, across denominational lines.

      I mentioned alcohol intentionally, because it too tends to be one area in which "others may" turns out to be untrue. A friend of mine had to give up alcohol for a year to be able to teach a class in the Baptist church he was attending, because it was considered a non-negotiable issue there.

      I didn't get into it in this post, but I might have to do one on the misuse of Romans 14 to impose legalistic rules.

    2. Oh, Romans 14, and also I Corinthians 8 and 10, have been so twisted over the years as to justify many kinds of authoritarian pronouncements, when really they are all about freedom! I'd love to read your thoughts on those passages.

    3. I've considered it. My pastor completely re-arranged my thinking on this point (in a good way) by showing the difference between a weak conscience, as Saint Paul puts it, and a legalist. I should put this issue on the list of stuff to blog about when I get time.

  3. I am so amazed to find this series. Due to the recent events of the Duggar family and the media attention, this blog was suggested on my Facebook feed. I hope you won't mind me sharing my personal experience within the fundamental church and specifically with the Duggar family, as your series has been incredibly helpful in easing my mind about my childhood with them.

    My mother had me when she was 16, out of wedlock, and met my stepfather when I was 4. She married him and had 2 boys within 18 months of each other, then they got a vasectomy seeing as we could not afford any more, nor did they want any. Around this time my mom took on a fascination with the church around the corner, which was Southern Baptist (mostly because they knocked on our door every Sunday to take me to Sunday school) and joined.

    A few weeks later the Duggar family came to services. I believe they had 9 children at the time. My mom was immediately drawn to them as they kept their children with them in the service instead of sending them to children's church, and they were all quiet and behaved. Soon after, they decided to leave and create their own home church. My family went with them.

    After that my entire life changed. I had already been homeschooled but we started attending Gothard seminars, studying wisdom booklets, and "purged" our home of the secular evils. My entire bedroom was stuffed into a can and burned, my entire closet was as well. I could not understand at 7,8 years old why suddenly wearing shorts was an evil abomination and my neighbor friend wasn't allowed to come over. This continued for a few years to greater and lesser degrees as my mom struggled with their decision to have a vasectomy, she was constantly (though passively) put down for having me out of wedlock and at such a scandalous young age, for not wanting more children (who in their right, godly mind??) and other things such as coming to church with skirts a little too short or flashy, etc.

    Of course there were many other things that happened in my pre teen years, but what stands out is my moms constant battering about boyfriends, keeping me far away from boys and being sure I acted appropriately when in their company. I wasn't exactly a flirt, but I did go through puberty early and my new shape was somehow seen as obscene and needed covering. I spent most of my awkward early teen years in oversized skirts and large, shapeless denim shirts. My chest was a constant source of scrutiny and anything normal sized was considered too tight or too low. Eventually I was sent to public school for a number of reasons, and I found the culture shock to be a little too much. At first I tried to preach the message but found I was laughed at and debated with my people much smarter and better read than I was. I eventually looked into a few of my ingrained beliefs and realized how silly and backwards it was. I had never thought I'd need to go to college but here I was taking AP college prep classes and my teachers were laughing at me for not taking my skills to the next level.

    Eventually when I turned 18 I rebelled and moved out, renounced anything to do with the church or God in general and lived in anger and resentment. Lately as I've gotten older I've begun searching out historical and contextual writings about the bible so I can see what it really means without all the ridiculous interpretation. I still don't believe we need God to be good people and that most people use religion as a crutch but I do believe the bible has many good things to hear if I can find a way to listen. Thank you for helping me in that journey.

    1. Wow. That's quite a story.

      I often wonder if I would have left the faith entirely had Gothardism been my only experience of it. I believe it was the positive experiences I had up through the middle of high school that kept me believing that maybe Gothardism was a cult, and that there was more to Christianity than that.

      And, there was still C. S. Lewis...

      Blessings on your journey!

  4. DOAA, thanks for writing this. Although my perspective is quite different than yours in some ways, I appreciated reading your views, especially since you and your wife experienced Patriarchy to a degree that I never did. Also, I appreciate that you try to be even-handed in your writing (as far as I've read so far). My husband and I have observed that many people in leaving the extreme positions of "Biblical Patriarchy" and legalism tend to run to opposite extremes, which is often unhelpful.

    One thing you wrote was very clarifying for me.

    "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."

    This really explained some strange behavior my husband and I have been witnessing in some people we know. I even passed the concept on to my brother and his wife and they both could see how well it explains what we've all been dealing with and experiencing. In short, we are the "dangerous ones" because we do, allow, wear, accept things in ourselves or others that this particular couple want their children to see as strictly "ungodly". However, it is fine to take them to the park to play where others would be doing some of these "bad things".

    Since we all love the Lord and strive to walk in His ways, it would be unthinkable for their kids to figure out that we are "good Christians" when we do "bad things". Thank you for that clarifying thought. We now have another piece of this mysterious puzzle.

    1. It took me a while to figure this out, because I couldn't understand why people would take their children out in public, yet would be so paranoid about being around fellow Christians who weren't "likeminded" enough. I finally understood the dynamic when I had my own kids, and began to have issues with extended family in this exact way. There was this need to control what we did, and I couldn't escape the conclusion that I came to.

    2. My husband and I don't have children, so I guess that's why we didn't see it. Neither of our families were into the Patriarchy Movement as deeply as you and your wife experienced it. My family was more affected than his was, but my parents never followed any specific leader and ignored many aspects of it (they were/are vigorously anti-Reconstructionist). Many of the ideologies that we did pick up were either made on the individual basis (my dad never had a problem with pants on women and allowed us to make our own choices) or were agreed upon as a family without coercion. In fact, my dad taught his kids that he wanted us to think for ourselves and make our own choices, and he allowed us to interact with all kinds of people who were "on different wavelengths" from our family. He had trouble dealing with it later when we took him at his word and made our own choices, but he got over it. :-)

      Biblical Patriarchy is a big deal in Texas and we've run across a lot of it, which has caused me to do quite a bit of research on it. One sister-in-law came out of an iron-fisted Independent Fundamental Baptist environment. She was heavily influenced by what I call "the purity cult", so she has given me a lot to consider and think about in her observations and her battle to free her mind from that control. She has likewise been startled that my convictions are really my own and not someone's demand of what I "needed" to do. So, it's been interesting interacting. We've had a lot of misunderstandings, but we've also become close friends despite our differences in some areas.

      I will say that I've come to the conclusion that we Christians probably should spend our whole lives revisiting what we believe from time to time and making corrections as needed. I've read that John Wesley burned all his sermons every 7 years because he felt he should have more understanding after that length of time. That is very thought-provoking. Only imagine if Gothard, Pearl and Phillips had done that.