As Ann Cabiness stood in the Communion line at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Sunday morning, two things were on her mind: connecting with God and getting out of the humid sanctuary before someone mentioned her skimpy tank top and tight, knee-length running pants.
“I know I’m inappropriate, but I’m trying to save time. I know I’m in the wrong. My mother would not approve,” the 30-year-old said sheepishly as she made a beeline from Mass at the Bethesda, Md., church to the gym. “But would it be better that I not come?”
Summer in the sweltering South forces a theological question: How does God feel about exposed shoulders in a house of worship? Or toes? Or some glimpse of thigh?
With temperatures in the 80s by 7:30 a.m. services, this is the season for church bulletin items like the one in Our Lady’s: “Dignity & Decorum: Please try not to wear beach shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thank you.”
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.”
Some critics say the drive for looser, longer fabric has political tones, a “modesty nostalgia” for a happier, more fully clothed America that some feel never was. But advocates for less skin in the sanctuary see modest attire as transformational – part of the process of moving into a spiritual head space.
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,” said the Rev. Don Davidson of First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Va. “That’s one reason we don’t talk about it.”
Some even argue that informal clothing signals not a new lack of respect for institutional religion but a new genuineness and familiarity.
Grass-roots pew patrolling, on the other hand, is as alive as ever.
Charisma Wooten, a singer and actor, had been a parishioner and lay leader at Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ in Riverdale, Md., for more than 30 years when she was told moments before taking the pulpit for a Scripture reading one baking July Sunday a couple of years ago that she couldn’t because she didn’t have on pantyhose.
Wooten said she was wearing a dress that nearly hit the floor, but Church of God in Christ is a formal denomination where ushers wear gloves and the handbook says that “dressing in a sensually provocative manner produces inclinations to evil desires.”
Another summer Sunday, Wooten was wearing a sleeveless black-and-white polka-dot dress and “my little matching shoes and hat,” when the pastor’s wife said sweetly: “Honey, aren’t you cold?” It took Wooten three days to realize she was likely being politely asked to cover her shoulders.
Wooten says she generally brushes it off when she’s been scolded for her church clothes, but the pantyhose incident led her to send a mass e-mail decrying the misplaced focus on rules and dogma.
“You can follow all these rules men set up and be on your way to hell,” she said.
Concepts of appropriate dress are, of course, a mix of denominational, regional, racial and ethnic components, and they are sometimes specific in unpredictable ways.
Black churches are generally known for formal, modest and elaborate style, even in summer. Catholics stereotypically are dressed simply for Mass – full suits and hats are less common, as are plunging necklines.
Rainey Ray Segars, 26, grew up with a Southern Baptist pastor-father in Tennessee, where shorts were common around church but strapless dresses were not. At 24, she moved with her new youth-pastor-husband to Illinois and found out on the first warm week since their move that jeans and Packers jerseys were fine at church activities but shorts were not.
After coming to a choir practice in shorts, a congregant “sent by a group of offended people” told Segars that she had caused someone to be lustfully distracted – “That it was my fault,” Segars remembered.
“I said, ‘I’m interested to know if that person will seek out help for themselves,’ ‘‘ Segars said. “I don’t agree that a woman is to blame for lust someone feels toward her. My thought was to start a dialogue.”
“It was like: ‘Yeah, that’s all fine, but please don’t wear shorts,’ “ she remembered.
The congregation she’s part of now, Segars said, includes a huge range of dress and cover.
“It shows a loveliness and a comfort: ‘I came just as I am, just looking to be known,’” she said. “It communicates a safety I think is really beautiful.”
Conversations (and condemnations) on the issue of modest clothing and summer worship seem to focus on women. Monsignor Ed Filardi said he put the notice in the bulletin at Our Lady of Lourdes at the request of women reacting to the clothing of other women.
Personally, he said, he doesn’t see a real problem, though after services Sunday morning one usher engaged the priest on the topic.
“You’re coming to see the Lord,” said Len Thompson, 65, recently retired from the Navy, and one of two men out of about 80 wearing a jacket at Mass. “What if I was going to see the Obamas? It seems skewed.”
Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood has many gay men as members, and last Sunday many men present wore dress shorts and polo shirts.
“I’m not sure if my shins are distracting anyone in here,” one 39-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said with a smile.
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 over-sexualized youth culture.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “you shouldn’t come to church as you would to a club.”
Northwest Washington image consultant Ketura Persellin has written about appropriate clothing for worship, down to the size of bag, jangly jewelry and skirt length.
This is a woman who cares about clothes. But as her preteen children are getting older, Persellin finds herself less tolerant of clothing chatter at her synagogue, Adas Israel.
“I don’t want people talking about my kids like that,” she said. “I’ve definitely been trying to get down from my high horse.”