Uncovering part of those church modesty debates

As I have mentioned many times here at GetReligion, Deacon Greg Kandra's blog "The Deacon's Bench" is must reading for anyone who is is seeking a rather light-hearted, but very newsy, look at what's happening in Catholicism and in religious life in general. What we have here is a second-career Catholic clergyman, a permanent deacon, who in his previous career was a 26-year veteran with CBS News who won two Emmys, two Peabody Awards, etc., etc. This guy knows church life and he also has a gift for spotting the strange twist that can turn an important subject in religious life into a valid news story.

This brings us to the illustration with this post, which is connected to the, uh, top of this 2011 column that I wrote for Scripps Howard:

Deacon Greg Kandra was well aware that modern Americans were getting more casual and that these laidback attitudes were filtering into Catholic pews.

Still, was that woman who was approaching the altar to receive Holy Communion really wearing a Hooters shirt?

Yes, she was.

When did Catholics, he thought to himself, start coming to Mass dressed for a Britney Spears concert? Had he missed a memo or something?

Now, this is precisely the kind of pew-level subject that I have noticed -- in 25 years of writing a weekly religion-news column -- gets a rise out of ordinary readers and, needless to say, clergy. Thus, I was interested when veteran religion-beat pro Michelle Boorstein addressed this topic the other day in a news feature for The Washington Post.

Yes, the anecdotal lede centered on life in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, where the Sunday bulletin notes: "Dignity & Decorum: Please try not to wear beach shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thank you.”

But the story, to its credit, is after bigger game:

Summer in our sweltering region forces a theological question: How does God feel about exposed shoulders in a house of worship? Or toes? Or some glimpse of thigh? ...

In general, casual has pummeled formal everywhere in America, from airplanes to offices. But places of worship -- where debates on modesty are not confined to the summer months -- may be the final frontier for questions about what constitutes overly risque. And those questions have recently sprung to new life.

A popular campaign aimed at young evangelical women called “Modest is Hottest” has triggered backlash by devout younger women who see the slogan as sexist. When the Bible calls for “modesty,” they argue, it refers to displays of things like wealth and is describing the depth of one’s spirit, not their neckline. Teaching women that their value rises if they have more clothes on is objectifying, a torrent of essays have argued.

“A woman’s breasts and buttocks and thighs all proclaim the glory of the Lord,” said Sharon Hodde Miller, a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School whose critique of “modest is hottest” in the online evangelical magazine Christianity Today was one of the best-read of recent years. “Modesty is an orientation of the heart, first and foremost. It begins with putting God first. To look at an outfit and say if it’s modest or immodest, I’m not sure you can do that.”

Yes, there is even a political angle to this, with readers being assured that the modesty folks are yearning for the good old days and a more conservative culture.

So take that, all of you scribes -- female and male -- who worry that skimpy clothing in public life tends to lead to the objectifying of women's bodies. And what if warnings about modesty drive away potential church members in an age of declining statistics in religious institutions?

Particularly today as institutional religion bleeds members, many churches -- even some theologically conservative ones -- advertise that dress is “come as you are.”

“We don’t want clothes to ever be a barrier. That’s one reason we don’t talk about it,” said the Rev. Don Davidson of First Baptist Church of Alexandria.

Some even argue that informal clothing signals not a new lack of respect for institutional religion but a new genuineness and familiarity.

There are all kinds of angles considered in this story, but the key voices that are missing (and this is big) belong to the actual writers, most of them women, who have been making a theological and cultural case for modest clothing. It appears that there are judgmental people prowling the pews, but -- at the level of publications and debates -- none of these women have any ideas in their heads.

In other words, there are debates going on out there. Good. That's a news story.

But are there articulate people on both sides? What is the content of this debate? I mean, other than this interesting quote near the end:

Discussions about possible sins of immodesty inevitably lead to discussions about another sin: judging.

“Jesus is most strong when he speaks about judging people,” said Johnnie Moore, youth pastor at the evangelical Liberty University, noting students have come to his services in pajamas. That said, he feels religious and secular Americans are joining forces over concern about an oversexualized youth culture. “Generally speaking, you shouldn’t come to church as you would to a club,” he said.

Just saying.

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